Over on Hipcrime Vocab, a new awesome summary of the trip from egalitarian tribes to civ.

I have a few comments. We need a better understanding than Harris offered regarding the move from a society committed to leveling, and the rise of the Big Men. As escapefromWisconsin puts it, “in such societies, aggrandizing members … encourage the production of surpluses by which they throw lavish feasts to enhance their prestige and status.” Yes, but a society based on the values of ‘vigilant sharing’ would not allow striving for prestige and status in the first place.

I disagree that slavery emerged because the agrarian lifestyle is backbreaking. There is plenty of evidence that foragers/horticulturists lived very well; they had some surplus, they still had the leisure. Slavery turned into a necessity only after top-heavy elites made mincemeat out of the economic patterns linked to sharing. It’s the overhead, stupid! 🙂

And finally, the progression from egalitarian band to despotism already happened within the egalitarian bands themselves. There is a creepy account of a Greenland Inuit group that fell prey to a despotic shaman who murdered people and stole women. The band became so terrified they were unable, at the time this early account was written, to strike back. We don’t know if they finally managed to assassinate him, or whether they all snuck off in the middle of the night. In other words, it is possible to hoard power and become a despot without first taking the entrepreneurial path of Big Men.

Welcome, commenters!

The Neolithic revolution was neither Neolithic, nor a revolution.
— Colin Tudge

Human beings of the race that calls itself Homo sapiens lived in relative equality, in small foraging bands all its existence from the time they emerged about 200,000 years ago. Then, around 30,000 years ago, during a bit more clement time within the last ice age, glimmerings of inequality arose at sites known in Europe — in places that were unusually plentiful in game.


One of the Sungir burials

Tools grew more elaborate, trade widened, grave goods accompanied certain burials, jewelry and other prestige items became notable, and evidence of control over significant labor was in evidence (viz, for example, the stupendous numbers of sewn-on ivory beads in the Sungir graves).

It has been hypothesized that at some locations, the fabled painted caves in France and Spain turned into places where elite children underwent their initiations. But when game grew sparse, humans went back to tight egalitarian cooperation.

Significant inequality kicked off around 15,000 years ago, after the end of the ice age, during the Magdalenian culture. By now, the dog, horse, and possibly the reindeer had been tamed by these stone-age foragers, thousands of years before the domestication of plants. The delicious pig was bred, also by foragers, in Anatolia about 13,000 years ago, while their Syrian neighbors may have tinkered with rye. A couple of millennia later, foragers built the impressive ceremonial center of Göbekli Tepe which shows the command of vast labor pools, not only to build the center, but eventually to bury it under a hill of gravel.


Part of Göbekli Tepe; click to enlarge; copyright National Geographic

While most of the tribes roaming the Earth continued in the age-old foraging and sharing patterns, a few cultures blessed with particularly fecund landbase began to amass wild surpluses, captured or tamed animals to use in ceremonies, processions and sacrificial rites, threw elaborate feasts, forged far-reaching alliances and trade, and started the engine of ratcheting economic growth, which then — very slowly and haltingly at first — began its world conquest.


preparing a tribal feast

The “feasting model theory” for the origin or agriculture was proposed by archeologist Bryan Hayden. It posits that intensive agriculture was the necessary result of ostentatious displays of power. To regularly throw feasts as a means of exerting dominance, large quantities of food had to be assembled. The enterprising Big Men came to be admired and encouraged for their charisma and skill in wheeling and dealing as they organized these ever larger, more sumptuous and more competitive affairs.

As feasts and ceremonies got more lavish and impressive, the economic treadmill speeded up. People were propelled to get inventive. Foragers had tended wild plants since time immemorial; now they began to cultivate more. Not to feed themselves day-to-day, you understand: for that, they had the plentiful wild food all around them that had always fed them. But the aggrandizive feasts demanded delicacies and amazing new foods to impress the guests. The animals, of course, were the first coup. The dog, whose genome began to diverge from wolves 100,000 years ago, was already domesticated 36,000 years ago. How impressive it must have seemed to have a tame wolf at one’s side who could keep the wild wolves at bay! And so, later, much more effort was put into making a steady supply of animals available for processions, ritual sacrifice, and feasting.

The first domesticated plants were a curiosity. Cultivated rice was proudly presented by the elites at feasts and glorified in myth. But the plant itself was fickle, produced little, and required a lot of work. For real food, people relied on manioc and wild staples, but to impress guests or to trade for desired items, they used rice. And of course, rice and the other grains produced alcohol, another coveted item at feast-time.

The picture I see is not of late Paleolithic and early Neolithic people planting fields of grains and vegetables. I see them growing small experimental plots of plants that could be leveraged into prestige and wealth. In our age, people of modest means tinker in their garages and dream of making it big. The foragers tinkered in their small garden plots. Once an experiment seemed promising, it was given a bit more land, and began to be displayed at the table of a few chosen people, not unlike Wes Jackson showcases his latest, most promising perennial grains at the Land Institute’s yearly festival, and gives small amounts to his friends and allies to try out.

It took many centuries, perhaps millennia, of such small-scale experimentation for grains, lentils, and other cultivars to achieve some reasonable production standard. Only then did they make sense as staples. What were once luxury foods became common fare. And once the old luxury foods were no longer scarce, new prestigious luxury foods had to be found for the insatiable elites. What are some of those early luxury foods? Chiles, vanilla, avocados, gourds, chocolate, alcohol, pork. The grains rice, rye, wheat, barley and maize were all accorded special respect and sometimes even divinity. A big coup was scored when the enormous and dangerous aurochsen were turned into smaller docile cattle.

And so the engine set to crank more and more nifty foods began to crank more people, and the Food Race kicked off in earnest. Tractable animals and improved plants were only some of the items the elites and their socio-economic treadmill pressed for. The others were metals, better tools and containers, more elaborate houses, monuments, ornaments and rare items from faraway places, bridewealth, and other cultural artifacts that validated the new extractive unequal economy. Thus began the endless stream of innovation and profusion of goods whose tail end we are experiencing now, supported by the geysers of fossilized fluids from the bowels of the earth.
Wild foods were the staples at Çatal Hüyük, the first town. It was wild grains that were venerated and interred in the statuette of the Seated Goddess. Wild aurochs bucrania adorned the walls. And the people ranged for miles to gather and hunt, rounding up wild goats and sheep into adjacent corrals. But I wager they had tiny garden plots nearby on the rich alluvial and regularly flooding soil surrounding their hillock, plots where they experimented with small amounts of exotic foodstuffs emerging from their patient manipulation. It would be thousands of years for the results of some of these trials to become widespread. Tinkering was so uncertain and laborious! The plentiful foraging grounds that surrounded them made such leisurely experimentation possible.

When their later descendants tried to grow the much improved crops in ever larger quantities, they ran into a problem: they damaged the soil they were forcing past endurance, and eventually caused crashes all around the Levant and Mesopotamia. These crashes were not really caused by ignorance — our clever and observant ancestors were savvy to the ways of the land — but the inexorable treadmill pushed and pushed them so they pushed and pushed the land, until it collapsed. Then they starved or migrated, taking their destructive system with them.

This ratchet, friends, is the socio-economic origin of agriculture. It is also the origin of destructive mining and metallurgy, of despotism, loss of leisure and increasingly debilitating work, increasingly violent conflict, population explosion, and slavery. In other words, agriculture turned destructive not because of some intrinsic flaw within larger-scale, more sophisticated cultivation. It turned destructive for the same reason mining, conflict, grazing, or governance turned destructive. Stay tuned.


Dogs diverged genetically from wolves more than 100,000 years ago, during the previous warm interglacial. Did humans have anything to do with it? The oldest known dog skeletons are from 36 and 33,000 years ago, found in Belgium and Siberia. A child was exploring the Chauvet cave, using a torch to look at the artwork while a dog followed… 26,000 years ago, well before the Ice Age Maximum.

When the cold began to let up, some 17,000 years ago, the people of the Pyrenees living at the Isteritz cave took such good care of a reindeer with a broken leg, it survived for two years (viz Paul Bahn: Pre-neolithic control of animals, 1984, and his response to ongoing controversy). By 15,000 years ago, pictures of horses with rope halters appear in the Magdalenian cave art of SW France.


Foragers created the first magnificent art. They built the first temples and the first high-density towns with thousands of inhabitants. They invented ovens and kilns, cookworthy pottery, wine and beer. They clearly domesticated the dog and probably tamed reindeer and horses.

So perhaps it’s not such a stretch to believe that they also domesticated the pigs, sheep and goats and a whole slew of plants, from grains to squash, gourds, and legumes, to delicacies like chocolate, vanilla, and chili peppers. Even more amazingly, it was rock-shelter dwelling, semi-nomadic foragers who spent hundreds of years patiently experimenting with the unpromising teosinte to bring about maize. Then they spent thousands of years more improving the new tiny-cobbed plant before settling down to grow it as a staple.

If a group of foragers plants a plot of squash near their favorite cave, then comes back in late summer to harvest their bounty, can they legitimately be called farmers? If another group of foragers raises some pigs while living off wild foods (and eating no cereals), can they be called farmers? If Egyptian foragers throw a bunch of traded domesticated wheat down into the rich alluvial mud on the banks of the Nile, perhaps to brew some beer, but otherwise live the hunting-fishing-gathering lifestyle, how are they any different from the Californian native foragers or the Aborigines who spread some favorite seeds and flooded them by diverting a creek’s spring runoff? Perhaps we need a new term, one that would reflect the foragers’ sophisticated plant manipulation skills that nevertheless did not, by themselves, lead to the predominantly farming life.

Archeologists have been, in my opinion, far too eager to brand cultures as farmers on flimsy evidence. It appears that farming is much younger than previously claimed. The first farming village was found in Egypt, dated to only 7,000 years ago. As Melinda A. Zeder, an archeobiologist, states:

This broad middle ground between wild and domestic, foraging and farming, hunting and herding makes it hard to draw clean lines of demarcation between any of these states. Perhaps this is the greatest change in our understanding of agricultural origins since 1995. The finer-resolution picture we are now able to draw of this process in the Near East (and, as seen in the other contributions to this volume, in other world areas) not only makes it impossible to identify any threshold moments when wild became domestic or hunting and gathering became agriculture but also shows that drawing such distinctions actually impedes rather than improves our understanding of this process. Instead of continuing to try to pigeonhole these concepts into tidy definitional categories, a more productive approach would be to embrace the ambiguity of this middle ground and continue to develop tools that allow us to watch unfolding developments within this neither-nor territory.



Originally, I planned two major posts summing up in detail the history of our species. Unfortunately, it turned into a big slog. I left the project a few years back, unfinished, and it would require several months of dogged research now. My life is too unsettled at the moment to allow that. But at the same time, it is impossible to sally forth into deeper explorations of early agriculture and social complexities without at least sketching a map of our “true history” — true, in this case, meaning a clear focus on the full span of our time as the species H. sapiens, not more, and not less.

Somebody ought to write a beautiful coffee table book, showing vividly the utter awesomeness of the Paleolithic world where megafauna roamed free, humans were just one species among many, and elephants were the “lords of creation” and doing an excellent job of it! An eye-opening and radicalizing bit of time travel it has been for me. So, here is a quickie, to share what I’ve discovered. Caveat: this is my own synthesis; others may disagree with some of the details; there is little in deep history that is not contested…

  • Curtain opens at about 200,000 years ago, as the world is heading into another ice age. Sapiens in lower Africa; Neanderthals in Europe and northern Asia, and several other descendants of erectus in southeast Asia. Humans talk, use fire, hunt, cook, make rafts, fire-hardened spears and simple stone tools.
  • Sapiens love to inhabit caves near rivers or the ocean; a number of them have been excavated and described in southern parts of Africa. Humans thrive in small egalitarian bands of 20 to 40 people; very local trade exists between bands.
  • Ice age comes to an end around 130,000 years ago, and for a while it’s quite hot. The vast majority of human artifacts from this interglacial come from the Neanderthals. Artifacts get more interesting. Humans love ochre and other pretty rocks. They invent fancy glue, make composite tools (wood and bone), fish hooks, bury their dead.
  • The climate cools again toward another ice age. The massive Toba eruption (c. 71,000 ya) causes a 6 year winter and sapiens barely escape extinction.
  • Temperature_Interglacials

  • About 60,000 years ago, descendants of erectus float or sail to Australia. And sapiens humans start moving out of Africa.
  • 50,000 years ago… many more tools, much improved; something is happening to sapiens brain, enabling a cultural shift into greater complexity of both language and artifacts. Art becomes common. Flutes. Sewn clothing. Conscience emerges.
  • Sapiens are coexisting and occasionally mating with Neanderthals in Europe, until 25,000 years ago. Pockets of humans survive the ice age at higher latitudes in refugia where megafauna is particularly plentiful. In these spots, culture flowers, tools are finessed, caves are painted, rituals are performed. First child-dog bond in evidence some 33,000 years ago. America discovered and begins to be settled.
  • R.I.P. our Neanderthal cousin

    R.I.P. our Neanderthal cousin

  • Ice age maximum reached at 20,000 years ago. The cold drought kills perhaps 90% of humans in Australia. Abrupt warming fosters flourishing sapiens cultures in Europe and the near East; horses and reindeer actively cared for and seeds sown. Pigs domesticated by Anatolian foragers around 13,000 ya. Inequalities begin to emerge in some bands. Resurgence of ice during the Younger Dryas period (13,300 ya to 11,800 ya). The construction of monumental Göbekli Tepe begins.
  • 10,000 years ago, a warm moist world of plenty; in a few areas, humans begin to settle down and build more permanent shelters and walls; cultivation of plants and animals intensifies, populations grow. Some human groups transition from egalitarian to Big Man (transegalitarian) social structures. First towns (and regional proto-civilizations) emerge in the Near East; people flock there voluntarily; peace and relative equality reigns. First regional environmental collapses resulting from human activity experienced toward the end of the Neolithic.
  • 6,000 years ago, first transitions to advanced metallurgy, bronze weapons, domination, and war. The very first incarnation of “this civilization” emerges in Sumer. Women are actively marginalized, social stratification increases, and health and longevity deteriorate for those lower on the pecking order. Non-civilized tribes begin to be pushed out. Wholesale slaughter of regional megafauna emerges as a status sport. Amazing art and devious cruelty advance apace.
  • First brutal empires (Akkadia, Babylonia and Assyria) emerge about 4,000 years ago. War and standing armies assume a menacing presence in a few places. But most areas of the globe continue to be settled by egalitarian or transegalitarian tribes (and on until recently). Sahara forms (without human help).
  • By 2,000 years ago, many societies continue to intensify and great religions emerge and manage to modify somewhat the brutality of the age of empires. Civilized humans preen as rational beings and lords of creation and begin to take over everything they can reach. Writing spreads. So do plagues. Mathematics, science and frequent technological breakthroughs start to make a difference in the human condition. Oceania settled by intrepid explorers in outrigger canoes.
  • 250 years ago, industrial civilization’s “Satanic mills” move into “mow down the living planet” mode, encourage out of control human reproduction, and filthify everything. Last autonomous tribes on the way out. Planet increasingly devastated. At the same time, some humans reap unprecedented benefits — including longer life-spans — from advancing understandings of science and technology. Ideology of progress and sharing the pie quells unrest. Then, within the space of a few decades, this civilization begins to show serious cracks. Elites keep their heads firmly wedged, er, in sand. Humans are, overall, increasingly well-connected, educated, stumped, and suffering from multiple addictions. Will they survive?


Predatory attacks would stampede the grazers; the stampede would open up the soil, the herd’s droppings would act as fertilizer. Well, it all worked well enough in prehistory!
— a commenter

Been thinking how to grow a prairie. I am facing a steep learning curve. There are people who know, and the Prairie Ecologist‘s blog is a very good place to start. And Gabe Brown, a farmer in North Dakota, sows “prairie mimics” of 10 or more different species, eventually harvesting the seeds and letting the grassy, leguminous understory turn the field to pasture.

While I was reflecting on the role of the large herbivores in prairies’ ongoing fertility, it brought to mind something from my post on the wonders of stable humus. Writing it, I had learned that
* for soil to grow, it must be alive;
* for it to stay alive, it must be covered;
* for it to stay covered, it must be disturbed.

Who “disturbs” the soils of the prairies? Small rodents like prairie dogs and meadow voles and mice. Rabbits. Various tiny soil critters. Weather and fire. And last but not least, the large ungulates like deer, elk/wapiti, pronghorn and bison. How exactly do these large mammals “disturb”? I took a look at their hooves.

The coevolution of hooves and grasslands

When scientists talk about this topic, they tell us that those odd horny appendages large herbivores walk on evolved because grasslands opened up new opportunities for fast running, and the ground was hard. But isn’t that only one part of the story?

I am thinking in terms of cooperative evolution. Insects coevolved with flowering plants; the flowers feed them nectar and pollen while the insects return the favor by pollinating. Squirrels eat acorns; in turn, they bury many and forget some, planting new oaks. Grasslands evolved increasingly more nutritious forage for the bison; in turn, the bison evolved appendages whose shape and heft provided the right kind of disturbance for the prairie to thrive.

bison hoof

bison hoof



Looking at the various hooves and their imprints, it struck me that they resemble chisels. They cut into the soil, churn it up, break up crusts and clumps, create pockets to hold moisture, trample old vegetation into the ground. What do humans call such work? Tilling. Cultivation.

Interesting, regarding chisels: the Rodale Institute has developed a crimper-roller that’s designed to trample green manures and old stalks into the ground. The tines work like chisels. Vineyards have available to them a smaller, even more chisel-like adjustable “eco-roll.” And Ames Lab at Iowa State University has produced an imprinter-roller that tries to imitate the hoofprints of passing buffalo, to be used in Colorado prairie restoration. Tries.

hoof imprinter

Too bad they made it as heavy as 8 buffalo — were they thinking they’d be stacked on top of each other, like a circus act? :/ Which brings me to the question of weight.

Say, how heavy was the aurochs?

The buffalo is the biggest herbivore of the North American grasslands. The more massive ones can weigh about a metric ton (2,200 lbs). The fabled aurochs that roamed the mixed forests and savannahs of the Near East, venerated and hunted by the town-building foragers at Çatal Hüyük, is said to have weighed around a ton as well.


man, aurochs

If modern farmers had paid closer attention to what works for nature, they could have stayed within that weight and avoided the nasty soil compaction problems plaguing so many mechanized farms. (They have chisel plows 2 ft deep nowadays, desperate to break up the deep subsoil hardpan… what will they do next, dig up the whole field with a backhoe!?!)

The widely popular Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor that came out in 1937 weighed 2060 lbs, just under a metric ton. But the “biggering” meme did its evil work, so that today we have the Big Bud, a monster of a tractor weighing over 100,000 lbs (45 metric tons). And everything in between. Now that is beyond insane. big bud

I took a peek at various county extension and land college sites; surely they would preach a return to smaller machines for compaction problems? Don’t hold your breath. They advocate “traffic management” despite knowing that the first pass of a heavy tractor over the land does the most damage.

And so it occurred to me that they are caught between the rock and the hard place. If they urged lighter machines, they would be biting the hand that feeds them — all those who profit by selling these huge tractors and implements and give out grants. But worse yet, they would be admitting that the whole biggering paradigm of the last 50 years has been mistaken, and terribly detrimental to soil. In addition, moving to smaller machines would mean moving to smaller farms; only megamachines make megafarms possible. Which in turn would open a giant can of worms: having to address the political economy of food which is biased against smaller producers, and the necessity for land reform. Ouch.


subsoil compaction


If nature tills the soil (and by the way, in forested environments the wild pig is nothing if not a super tiller), then those much maligned neolithic farmers were not doing anything nature does not do in disturbing the ground to grow plants. The ard (aka scratch plow, basically a pointed stick embellished over time), creates a shallow disturbance where seeds can be sowed.

The benighted moldboard plow was not invented until about 300 BC in China, and 1,000 AD in Europe. So perhaps it was not the disturbance per se that damaged/ruined the soil of the Near East, but something else… and that made me wonder if the whole emphasis on no-till among organic gardeners and farmers has been misbegotten. Given the fact that I turned parts of my Colorado garden soil into a hardpan within a couple of years of no-till despite all the organic matter and mulch I applied, this has been an exciting thought. Gasp. Was Ruth Stout wrong?!

No-till deception

I used to swear by no-till, cringing whenever I had to fluff the soil to put the seeds in, and depriving myself of the joy of burying my hands in the dark crumb. Feeling increasingly hoodwinked, I turned to one of my favorite farmers for enlightenment. Gene Logsdon has written eloquently about his problems with no-till here, here, here and here; you gotta read it to understand the pain. And one does not have to look far on the web to see the extent of the cover up.

As it turns out, no-till farming is not quite no-till. Not only has the chemical industry jumped on the bandwagon, inducing farmers to douse fields with herbicide, but no-till farmers till aplenty — they twist the words, and have invested in all manner of huge machines that churn the land over and over, deeper and deeper, during the growing season, while not being, you know, technically speaking, moldboard plows.

Neolithic soil murder — whodunnit?

So the question offers itself: if intermittent, lightweight, shallow surface tilling is in principle beneficial to the land, imitating the good work of the ungulates, then what killed those Near East soils? Well, deforestation, and in lower Mesopotamia, salinization ruined a lot. But in the grasslands, it was not soil disturbance per se but too much of it. As nature jumped in to cover those bare fields with “weeds,” the farmers fought back with more and more tilling, resulting in more and more bare, carbon-depleted soil, until the soil died and blew away.

Doink. I fell for the all or nothing fallacy, again. If much tilling harms the soil, then no tilling AT ALL must be the answer, right? Wrong.

Last missing piece

All the same, I wondered what might counteract soil erosion in the tween times when even modest tilling renders soil temporarily bare. The answers came readily. Untilled buffer zones such as hedges moderate run-off. But the key to keeping soil in place are soil glues. These are sticky substances that only recently began to receive attention. It is the glues that keep soil crumbly. The crumb in turn forms spaces that readily receive rain, letting it pass into the subsoil and the aquifer. And it’s the glues that hold the soil together in the face of water and wind. (That’s an amazing short video!) And glues abound in living soils.

Earth, water, air, fire

Churning the top layer of the soil invites the alchemical marriage of the four elements — earth, water, air, sun’s fire — and in uniting the above and the below, green life comes forth in profusion.

Anyone can see this in a potted plant. After a while, the soil compacts, water is slow to be absorbed, and the plant — if sturdy — survives in a lackluster sort of fashion. But take a chopstick and dig around a bit, add a few spoonfuls of fresh soil. Water will quickly sink into the fluffed soil bringing with it needed oxygen and other gases, the soil will warm and dry quicker, avoiding water-logging, and the aeration and sunlight will neutralize molds. The plant will spring to life.

Here’s how nature does it:
* for soil to grow, it must be alive;
* for it to stay alive, it must be covered by plants;
* for it to stay covered by plants, it must be tilled.

The Earth is a garden after all. Where are your hoof shoes? Come dance on the land!

god pan


It takes a tremendous amount of ongoing work to disrupt the tendency of the land in the Plains to try to become a prairie, or the land in the Northeast to become a forest. Ecosystem succession is a force of nature to contend with, and it requires huge amounts of energy to disrupt it with the plow or the herbicide tank. Then it takes even more energy to substitute for the ecosystem services that got disrupted…
— Tim Crews, The Land Institute

On my recent cross-country trip east, I finally made it to the Land Institute. What took me so long? It’s just a smidgen south of Salina, Kansas. A lovely way to break up a tedious journey. Salina, with its 20 inches of precipitation per year, tips into the more humid, green, fertile part of Kansas. Here a fascinating experiment has been unfolding for some thirty years, hitting its stride only recently. On the surface, these dedicated folks are breeding perennial grains. But their heart’s desire is to re-think and re-do food agriculture altogether. I kept hearing of the project for years. I expected to find monocultures of perennial crops that could end the frequent plowing associated with annuals. But joy, I found a whole new paradigm.

What was once a tiny homestead with a dream has bloomed into some 200 acres with a small but impressive research facility. And what was once a “crazy idea” has moved into the mainstream: a number of universities are well into perennial grain projects, here and in Canada. Land Institute’s first grain, kernza, which is mostly a wild grass with some wheat genes brought in the old-fashioned way, is now grown on significant acreage at the University of Minnesota, and will be developed into “sustainable foods” under the auspices of Yvon Chouinard’s Patagonia company. The Land Institute is focusing at present on four perennial crops: kernza (Thinopyrum intermedium), wheat, cold-hardy sorghum, and a couple of species of sunflowers. Other institutions have been crossing maize back to ancestral teosinte, and perennializing other grains (notably rice).

Perennial grain research has a long history of frustration and failure, not even counting those talented ancient breeders from whom we’ve inherited most of the annual crops that feed us. The Soviets abandoned their decades long breeding program in the 60s. Others too threw in the towel. The main obstacle to developing perennial grains is the conflict between perenniality and seed production. An annual plant throws its all into the seeds and dies. So it becomes easy to breed for bigger seeds. But a perennial plant throws itself into establishing deep roots meant to overwinter the plant and allow repeated survival. Therefore, its seed production is lackluster compared to annuals. Those plants that do survive have lower yields, while those that give higher yields die. A conundrum. In the old days, yield was everything, and that was the final nail in the coffin of all those early projects. But now that we know about soil and habitat loss, and the loss of carbon and nitrogen from the soil in the wake of the plow, the yield numbers look quite a bit more favorable.

I must report that kernza is wonderfully tasty, and its flour can be obtained at the Institute’s yearly celebration — the Prairie Festival — at the end of September, along with plenty of goodies made from it, of course. The word is that small farmers and gardeners will be brought into the kernza project in the coming years to help test the new grain in a variety of conditions and climates. The Institute is collecting a list of interested folks.

The first thing my tour guide did was to walk out to the land to show me a stand of old prairie. I was more interested in the experimental field of kernza in the distance. Only later, as I worked through all the information and Wes Jackson’s early book, New Roots for Agriculture, did my paradigm go pop! They are not aiming to grow monoculture fields of perennials. Their vision is to grow an edible prairie.

Imagine! An edible prairie where grains, legumes, oil seed plants and other forbs coexist for years without replanting. The harvest is timed in such a way that most of the seeds can be plucked together, then mechanically sorted. Just as a food forest is a fusion of garden, orchard and woodland, so the food prairie is a fusion of garden, field, and grassland. This is the sort of plant community that can feed humans sustainably in places where nature herself prefers open grasslands of one kind or another.

Take a good look. These “amber waves of grain” were grown by Mother Nature in South Dakota.

dakota prairie

Springtime at the Coyne Prairie in Missouri… ah.

coyne prairie

And Indian paintbrushes feeding a hummingbird along the grasses of a Wisconsin prairie. I just could not resist.


Shocking, isn’t it, to contemplate a vast expanse of ripening grasses that thrive, year in and year out, century in and century out, without outside inputs, without fertilizers, and pesticides, without weeding, and without human “management.” And build soil in the process!

While food forests were utilized by subsistence farmers in Amazonia, Oceania and southeastern North America, there is no record of ancient food prairies that I am aware of. Perhaps those neolithic farmer/breeders took the easy way out. Breeding grassy/herby perennials and combining them into complex communities, then harvesting them successfully presents so many obstacles even today that Wes Jackson’s crew has had to endure disbelief for years. And indeed, the Land Institute does not have many of the answers even now. In order to learn grow an edible prairie, first you must have the plants to do it with.



Yet… I have this tickly feeling that when the prairies were plowed up and blown away, we all lost more than good deep soil and critter habitat. Would it be so far out of the range of possibility to think that the Sioux — who had been farmers, growing maize, beans, squash, melons and tobacco, leaving that livelihood behind with the coming of the horse — did not abandon their plant selection and modification skills as they followed the buffalo? Most of the time, it was the prairie that fed them, not the big animals. Surely they tended the land just like the tribes in California (described so vividly in Tending the Wild). Did they sprinkle their favorite grass seeds in the way of the buffalo to be trampled in? Did they replant nutritious tubers and nurture and spread patches of their favorite berries? Did they encourage lamb’s quarters with particularly big seeds? Certainly they lit fires that set back the annuals and encouraged new growth. Applying their skills toward making the prairie around them even more edible, even more abundant, they may have left an inheritance that would simply not have been noticed by European observers. After all, westerners caught on to the role Amazonian tribes played in the creation of that fecund jungle just a few years ago. Such gentle, mutually enhancing coexistence with the surrounding biome comes to us as a surprise.

There seems to be enough evidence that modestly-well yielding and tasty perennial grasses, oil seed plants and legumes that also survive for several years are not too distant a goal. But I see a temptation to take the most promising of these and grow them in monocultures. Why? Because that is what the first farmers involved in the project are already doing, right now. Even for organic farmers, the jump to perennials and polycultures might be too big to make. On the other hand, for permaculture-oriented folk, it’s the natural step, because we are rooted in the polyculture vision to begin with. An alliance of perennial plant breeders, those with prairie restoration experience, and permaculturists is needed to guide this project on the next leg of its ambitious, far-seeing journey.


The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don’t.
— Joe Jenkins

I failed. I failed abysmally, ignominiously, and thoroughly. I went to Earthaven to finally — finally! — become one of the people who no longer piss and shit in drinking water. And I failed.

When I first showed up at da Shed, my landlord handed me a pint yogurt jar and said, you can pee anywhere outside, or you can just throw it down the sink. I did both. One day, I lost my balance, tipped backwards, and crushed that yogurt jar full of mellow yellow. My ire was provoked: been nearly 20 years and this community hasn’t figured out a pleasant way to pee indoors to teach newbies? What happened to those comfy old-fashioned chamber pots?

chamber pot

The internet is full of antiques, but not even Lehman’s, the quintessential Amish store, carries them. You can still buy nice new chamber pots in the Czech Republic and UK, bless’em, but importing or paying antique prices seemed like overkill.

I tried my stainless steel soup pot with rounded edges. Not bad, and uncrushable, but heavy and hard to wash in my miniscule sink. I finally settled for a sturdy squarish plastic storage container, 5½ x 5½ x 4 inches. Easy to grab, easy to empty, crush-resistant, and ample for one female bladder. Taller, though, would be better, 6 inches being ideal.

Later on, when the whiffs of stale urine accosted my nose of an evening, I discovered that the plumbing leading from the sink ended in mid-air just past da Shed. What? Not even a minimalist gravel pit in this wet climate, a few yards from the creek? And what happened to the idea of using urine as a phosphorus-rich fertilizer? When I visited EH in 2006, there were collection bottles attached to the shitters — simple outhouses collecting humanure in 55-gallon drums — everywhere. Now even many of the shitters are near defunct.


For the brown stuff, I was provided a 5-gallon bucket sporting a molded plastic seat with lid, the kind sold to campers. Do the deed, throw in some sawdust. Easy enough? The flimsy seat proved barely adequate to sit on. But I quickly discovered another drawback; in this humid climate, the lid held down not only odors (there weren’t any, all true!) but also acted as a collector for the condensation from below. When I opened the lid and sat down, the wet lid glommed onto my bare behind. Ick! But wait, it gets grosser. A few weeks in, I opened the lid and a bazillion of little flies flew in my face. Eew! MAGGOTS!!!

My landlord graciously offered to show me where and how to clean out the bucket. The poop, amazingly, had by now disappeared, leaving behind nice decaying sawdust. But… maggots! The bucket had to be scrubbed hard to get rid of their remains. Worse yet, I was told they’d be back. When the toilet was replaced in the shed part of da Shed, I vowed never to use it again. And never did.

As a consequence, when nature called, I trooped — sphincter firmly clenched — the half mile to the Council Hall’s bathroom. Only one problem: the Council Hall has, mercy me, a flush toilet! And this flush toilet uses the cleanest, most drinkable water at Earthaven to flush poop. Reality bites.

So, you might well ask… huh? I did. Got back a shrug. Earthaven faces a dilemma. In order to build to code, a septic system must be put in. The county is not opposed to composting toilets but insists on a septic tank for greywater. And it takes special dedication and extra resources to put in a composting toilet after all that hassle and expense. So much easier to slap in a porcelain throne and be done with it while listening to that familiar siren song… “out of sight, out of mind.”

On the other hand… Earthaven depends for its existence on a steady stream of pilgrims, and its mystique must be maintained. So it happens that some tour guides have been heard to say to visitors at Council Hall: “This is the only flush toilet you will see at Earthaven.” Technically, it’s true, because there is very little chance said visitors will have access to any of the water-closeted houses. But only technically. To my count, there are 5 other conventional flush toilets at EH, and if the trend to build to code grows, there will be others. Unless.

Unless the eco aspect of the community receives greater emphasis in the years ahead, and with it a firm commitment to the reconnection of the broken nutrient cycle so typical of Babylon.


Intact Nutrient Cycle


Here’s my question: couldn’t a pleasant, well-functioning humanure system be provided for all EH homes, including rentals? It doesn’t take much to build one of those simple toilets with a comfortable seat Joe Jenkins’s been popularizing for many years in his Humanure Handbook. But then again… there are the maggots. Aw, crap.


Sunday July 14th.

More rain.
Sheets of rain.
Waterfalls of rain.

After drought stricken Colorado, it first seemed like manna from heaven. But heavens have been fickle this year. While the rest of the country bakes, the Carolinas are getting swamped. And when the rest of the Carolinas are enjoying a respite, it still rains in these thar hills! The 80+ oldtimers swear this is the wettest year of their lifetimes. The swollen creeks run mud, EH’s first bridge is underwater — I had to wade through rushing water twice today — and molds are having a field day. My prized possessions (a few treasured paintings) are beginning to moulder and warp. I am beginning to moulder and warp. What a time to move to Earthaven!

I must say that EH lays much less social stress on an introvert like me, than Dancing Rabbit did. The houses and settlements are spread out, and when I go out walking, I meet very few people most days. Besides, folks drive, even from Earthaven to Earthaven. [Hm…] There is more traffic under my window than there was in my old neighborhood out west! But interaction is far more optional.

The farmers at EH are now producing eggs, milk and veggies, as well as some lamb and pork. The gateway field, clear-cut during my visit 6 years ago, is now a picturesque pasture with multicolored sheep, a few goats, and a sheepdog. There is a small farmers’ market one morning a week.

Potlucks, held once or twice a week, are informal. No circles and obligatory hand-holding. Everybody brings a small dish, grilled bits of meat or fish can be had for a couple of bucks, and people chow down and visit. Yesterday, one of the members staged a rare treat, a genuine Cajun crawfish boil, with critters imported on ice from Louisiana. All as a gift to the community.

crawfish boil

Huge swallowtail butterflies are everywhere. Flocks of them. Did you know they were carnivorous? They perch on road-flattened frogs sucking their juices. Wineberries are ripening into delicious roadside snacks despite chronic lack of sunshine. And cardinals warble from the trees, blessing all who hear them.


I ran into a herbalist the other day who got intrigued by my lymphoma history, and wondered if I’d be interested in trying poke root therapy. I may well be interested after some joint research. Serendipity? I’ve met more congenial people in the three weeks here than I had in the last three years in the mainstream.

My favorite Earthaven sight? A girl walking around followed by four tiny just-born goatlings. Tumbling behind like puppies…


We should all get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant — the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me.
— Edward Abbey

For most of human history, deceased human beings were left exposed, to feed carrion eaters and the soil critters underneath. About 100,000 years ago, first shallow graves appeared — the body enriched the topsoil while being protected from the beasties by a layer of soil and rock. And so it continued, until the Neolithic.

That’s when funerary customs took a bizarre turn. In the settlements transitioning from foraging to agriculture people began to bury the dead under the floor of their houses. Sometimes, they disinterred the cadaver and cut off its skull, to be plastered and painted for display. (Didn’t they mind the stench and gruesomeness?!)

As elites rose into power, all around the world they began to build elaborate tombs to house their mortal remains. In some places, the brisk business of embalming sold sure tickets to the next world. But whether the bodies were embalmed or not, the soil was denied its due as corpses rotted or mummified in stone chambers. Was this the first time the nutrient cycle was broken? As the lower orders aped their “betters,” the idea caught on. Flip the bird to Mother Nature: you can’t have my body back, you old hag! I am too fancy for the likes of you!

Fast forward to the present. In some parts of the world, scant remaining forests are denuded to burn corpses on a pyre so their ashes can be thrown into the river people drink from. Um. Sky burials sound reasonable until you find out that priests are engaged to dismember and deflesh the naked corpses high on the mountain. Did the vultures demand smaller pieces, or is it another example of priestly entrepreneurial zeal? Alas, western civ hasn’t done any better. Let us review the options on offer to the distraught relatives of our neighbors who have just shuffled off their mortal coil.

1. Burn the body, place the ashes in a metal or marble urn, and stash them away in a mausoleum where they will sit till the sun burns out. (Although, for a small fee a company will spread them out at sea, or the families can find a remote natural spot.) This method was cunningly designed to burn vast amounts of natural gas or propane, in addition to ensuring that we all end up breathing corpse particles along with mercury fillings, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur and carbon dioxide. Please note that in some crowded places on the planet (Japan, parts of China and western Europe), this is now the only option available. It gives new meaning to the image of Beijing shrouded in smog.

Data from the funeral industry are hard to come by; my back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that my small house in Colorado could be heated by the propane used in one cremation for about a month.

2. Bury the body 6 feet under, in a large wooden coffin with brass handles encased in a concrete or metal vault, making sure the body decays as slowly as possible within a layer of soil with very few microorganisms, thus causing maximum groundwater pollution. Forests die so that fancy oaken or tropical wood coffins can be ostentatiously displayed. Embalming — a horrid process I mostly skipped over when reading informative Grave Matters, a book promoting greener funerals — makes sure that the groundwater is not only polluted with cadaver goo, but also with some 200 different types of toxic ick. The undertakers as a profession suffer from diseases caused by frequent exposure.

According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance.

Way to go, folks! Way to go? No, thank you. Myself, I’d rather go quietly back to the earth that brought me forth, and skip the parts where my ol’ body burns up enough gas to heat a house in the winter, kills forests or pollutes air and watersheds. Neither am I one of those who would rather pretend they can evade the deep truth: “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

What, then, are my options?

Walking off to a remote place and letting the good beasties have me sounded swell until I realized that when I am dying, I probably won’t have the vim and vigor required for a long hike.

Promession is a Swedish process whereby the body is placed in a tub of liquid nitrogen, freeze-dried, then jostled and turned into powder which can then be buried in topsoil and will compost within the year. Alas, the inventor has promised more than she can deliver, and the whole thing sounds like vaporware.

Resomation (aka bio-cremation) puts the body in a steel tank containing water and lye, applies modest heat (about 350°F compared to 2000°F needed for incineration), and pressure. After several hours, the bone fragments are given to the family and the rest of the brew is unceremoniously flushed down the drain. Ah. New Hampshire and the Catholic Church have developed doubts about that bit. But several states and Saskatchewan do make resomation currently available, and indeed, it seems much greener than the popular choices, as long as your sewer pipes and waste water plant can handle it. Some universities use it to dispose of bodies in their donor programs. On the other hand, it externalizes the disposition of the cadaverous chemicals onto the public infrastructure, and ultimately the waterways.

Natural burial in green cemeteries appeals a great deal because it supports nature reserves that might otherwise fall to the developers’ axe. There are more than 200 such woodland or meadow cemeteries in the UK, and about 20 in the States, with more on the way. Green cemeteries ban embalming, fancy coffins and vaults, and implement shallow graves. And they are loveliness itself, a joy for grieving families and hikers, both.

Pyrolysium might some day dispose of bodies via pyrolysis, and turn our dearly departed into sacks of biochar that can be conveniently used as soil amendment.

Composting large road-kill like deer has been successfully implemented in several places around the country by laying the corpse on a bed of woodchips, then piling a whole lot of chips on top. The decomposition is completed within several months, and the bones ground up for bone meal fertilizer. Why not do that with humans? I would be happy to volunteer. It sounds like the cleanest, sanest, simplest, and cheapest alternative of all.

Unless, of course, you can bury your loved one on your own plot of land. It is not that difficult in most states, and the book Final Rights will help you navigate the legalities.

And don’t forget biodegradable, tree-sparing coffins and shrouds, ranging from cardboard boxes (lame), through soft winding sheets, all the way to beautiful willow basketry, felt cocoons, and papier-mache pods. About time.

Let’s all play “beat the reaper” and turn our used-up bodies into new life!

A properly socialized individual had a powerful sense that the wild world was feeding him, and he ought to be as grateful and as anxious to act decently as he would to any human who fed him out of sheer kindness.
– E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the heart

People intuitively view agriculture as the root of domination because intensifying food economies made possible large surpluses which could then support elites and their servants. As indeed they did. But the link with agriculture is conditional.

Certain well-endowed economies (whether foraging, horti, field agriculture, or grazing) make large surpluses possible. But they do not make them inevitable. Food harvests– of any kind — do not lead to surplus unless the people in question decide to produce it. Given the fact that humans generally have better things to do with themselves than toil, they tend to work as little as necessary to cover their food needs and a little extra for the winter or an upcoming celebration. If they planted a field of rye, and it produced twice as much as they expected, they’d be likely to plant half next year, and spare themselves the extra work. If salmon or anchovies are particularly plentiful this year, why not kick back and enjoy the easy life?

And indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that “agriculture does not automatically create a food surplus. We know this because many agricultural people of the world produce no such surplus. Virtually all Amazonian Indians, for example, were agricultural, but in aboriginal times they did not produce a food surplus. That it was technically feasible for them to produce such a surplus is shown by the fact that, under the stimulus or European settlers’ desire for food, a number of tribes did raise manioc in amounts well above their own needs, for the purpose of trading.” These tribespeople went back to underproduction when their trading needs were satisfied.

Even the simplest foragers often produced some subsistence surplus. They were, however, not exercised much by planning ahead, and often blew through the entire cache at a midwinter feast, going hungry shortly thereafter, trusting that the world would provide. Many anthropologists noted that strictures against taking “more than you need” were extant in these societies.

Boreal Algonquians expected intermittent periods of hunger during the winter, and these fasts—and even the possible threat of death—were preferable to the planning and labor entailed by food storage. The definition of the resource situation was one in which animals were ordinarily available and hunger a predictable, endurable, and usually transient aspect of the winter round. It is precisely in this arbitrary weighting of risk aversion and optimism that the operation of the cultural logic of Cree labor is specifiable. The costs of the labor, always potentially superfluous, entailed in storage was reckoned disproportionate to the reliability ensured by the surplus. Before approximately 1900, boreal forest Algonquians often fasted and sometimes perished for lack of food. These tragedies would have occurred less frequently if more intensive food storage had been practiced. Experiencing long-term game shortages as though they were new instances of transient scarcity, the Algonquians continued, with some concessions, “to let tomorrow provide for itself.” The decision to store less and starve more (or, among Chipewyans, to store more and starve less) was not objectively determined by the Canadian Shield ecosystem, the limits of the technology, or caloric efficiency. The paradox of the starving Montagnais consuming all their preserved eels in autumn feasts is a particularly forceful example of the meaningful construction of utility, efficiency, and the entire structure of foraging labor and consumption. This skepticism toward advanced planning and reliability is not limited exclusively to foragers. Audrey Richards’s (1932) classic monograph on the Bemba is a detailed exposition of an agricultural society whose members preferred transient hunger to what they deemed excessive labor.

To broaden the areal focus, comparable practices existed even in a “delayed return” foraging society like the Alaskan Koyukons who occupied sedentary winter villages provisioned by preserved fish and caribou meat. According to Sullivan (1942), the Koyukons sometimes disposed of their stored foods during lavish feasts in late summer, midwinter, and early spring. The midwinter feasts, in particular, sometimes occasioned hardship if hunting was unsuccessful, but they continued into the present century. The Koyukon feasts pose the same paradox as the Montagnais: the surplus was accumulated and preserved but then consumed, precluding its use to level fluctuations in the long term. Murphy (1970:153) described among the Brazilian Munduruçu “the hunter’s glut, an abundance of meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled, and the men stayed at home because further hunting would have been a crime against the game and because they had to apply themselves steadily to the serious business of eating.”

These subsistence surpluses hedge the bets of survival a little; much of the time, though, simple (or “immediate return”) foragers only get enough to eat for the next several days. Surplus that goes beyond subsistence is a luxury good. Since it is above what the community needs, it can be traded, or given away, and no one is the worse off. It is not the little extra a community needs to weather a winter or to set aside seed for spring planting. That “little extra” is needed for survival and cannot be derailed toward optional undertakings. Luxury surplus is the kind that can support elites.

The extant records, like the ones quoted above, show that even the most basic subsistence surpluses were the result of choice. Only more so, then, can luxury surpluses be said to result from a choice (within either forager, horticultural, or agricultural economies). They cannot be the automatic result of the agricultural way of life. There will be no surplus, no matter how abundant the land, unless the people in question decide to override their culture’s disapproval, begin taking more than they need, and devote much more effort to storage techniques. And it appears that the first people who chose to produce luxury surpluses were very ancient complex (or “delayed-return“) foragers. Brian Hayden has this to say:

From all the indications that prehistorians have gathered, it appears that humans have existed for well over 2 million years in a state of relative equality. It is possible to perceive the glimmerings of some changes toward socioeconomic inequality around 50,000 years ago. These changes became more pronounced in some areas about 30,000 years ago, and then became especially dramatic and widespread after about 15,000 years ago.

The shift toward socioeconomic inequality is not tied to food production, but occurred well before agriculture emerged. At the end of the Pleistocene, these changes occurred independently in a number of different areas of the globe. Thus the emergence of significant inequality followed a pattern that is strikingly similar to the emergence of food production, but preceded it by many millennia. (Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief, 2007)

There we have it. The root of domination lies in the Paleolithic, deep in forager world.

gravetian man

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