origins of agriculture

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 cousinR.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?


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

Our human forebears everywhere did not just passively gather food and basketry materials but actively tended the plant and animal populations on which they relied. There was no clear-cut distinctions between hunter-gatherers and the more “advanced” agricultural peoples of the ancient world. Moreover, California Indians had likely completed the initial steps in the long process of domesticating wild species…
— Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild

In Agriculture: villain or boon companion, I argued that we sapiens have been cultivators since time immemorial, that a combination of foraging and cultivation is a sensible, durable way of life that has served us well, and that the “origin of agriculture” really is the intensification of cultivation that becomes visible in the archeological record.

I have since been stymied in my quest for clearer understanding by the ongoing insistence of some folks to paint agricultural cultivation into a corner as a disastrous turn for humans and the root of our present troubles. They point to foraging and horticulture as modes of food production that avoid the damage agriculture has brought about. I wanted to test this claim.

It became quickly apparent to me that one does not need agriculture to intensify and produce an increasing surplus. For example, the rich salmon-and-candlefish-based economy of the Kwakiutl provided plenty of surplus to support elites and even to motivate slavery. Foragers are said to live in harmony with their environment, to keep their populations low and their hierarchies flat (if any). Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily so. There are compelling data showing that the Australian aborigines wreaked continent-wide devastation with their use of fire on a highly vulnerable landscape, degrading the vegetation, causing massive runoff and loss of soil during monsoons, and eventually precipitating a change in climate for the worse. While in North America the native tribes may have had but little to do with megafauna extinction, not so in Australia. The human-precipitated change of vegetation deprived the largest and most specialized browsers of adequate food, and they began to disappear not long after the arrival of humans, some 45,000 years ago, along with their marsupial predators. That should hardly be surprising, as the same story repeated many millennia later with the colonization of Far Oceania. For example, in New Zealand. the South Island Maori, former horticulturists who returned to foraging as more suited to that environment, slaughtered the moas and other vulnerable creatures in an orgy of gluttony, only to turn on each other when protein ran low. The populations of both aborigines and Maori fluctuated according to food availability. Some of the tribes lived in hierarchical societies.

It has also been claimed that horticulturists for the most part remain egalitarian and lack despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies, and have built-in constraints against large populations and the hoarding of surplus. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been, indeed, some horticulturists who remained egalitarian, chose to limit their population when it was getting out of hand, and whose gardens and edible forests leave the soil and ecosystem in a good shape. The small island of Tikopia comes to mind. But they seem no more common than those horticulturists (such as Easter Islanders and many others) who pillaged their new island home, wiping out much of the native flora and fauna, permanently degrading the living environment. The horticulturists who settled Far Oceania were generally rigidly ranked peoples whose chiefs extracted a goodly portion of the harvest, waged wars on neighbors, built fancy tombs and megaliths, and occasionally came close to a state formation. The puzzle of intensification cannot be sidestepped by a reference to a golden age of horticulture.

Still, it bears stressing that many — perhaps most? — ancient forager/cultivator societies coexisted very well with their landbase. For example, the Moriori, cousins of the Maori, also switched to settled foraging on Chatham Islands, and were such careful stewards of their environment that seal colonies flourished within a stone’s throw from their villages. They lived notably egalitarian lives and carefully controlled their population. Until they were wiped out by the Maori, they were an impressive example of cool temperate region people living in close symbiosis with their ecosystem.

The illuminating and well-researched book Tending the Wild documents various Indian tribes who were also, by and large, careful stewards of their coastal California homelands. “They were able to harvest the foods and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving — and sometimes increasing — the plant populations from which these came. The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals.” Living among a similarly abundant natural environment as the Kwakiutl further north, they did not succumb to ongoing intensification, and continued to share any accumulated seasonal surpluses. Why did Kwakiutl intensify, while their close neighbors to the south, the Coastal Yurok, did not?

I conclude that neither the foraging nor horticultural modes of food production are by themselves a guarantee against ongoing intensification and the eventual damage it brings. There is a streak of persistent idealization of the forager and simple horticulturist among primitivists and other uncivilization-minded people. Slavery might be reframed as “captivity,” environmental damage rationalized, potlatches celebrated as evidence for gift-economies rather than economic warfare, and discussion shut off. Surely it’s not necessary to ostracize people who point out the facts on the ground, and a need for a rethink? After all, egalitarian forager/cultivators do show us that this particular mode of existence — so successful and durable during most of our species’ history — functioned mostly within the ‘Law of limits’ that allows ecosystems to thrive.

Below is an artist’s portrait of the California flightless diving ducks. They were finally driven extinct by the Indians who could reach Catalina Island by boat. But… it took them 8,000 years to do it.

flightless duck

The rise of pristine states would appear to be best understood as a consequence of the intensification of agricultural production. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification.
— Marvin Harris

A great and absorbing book. Very much recommended. I figure it must be one of the essential sources used by Daniel Quinn when he wrote Ishmael.

Marvin Harris was a well-known anthropologist and author who nearly cracked the puzzle I have been writing about: what is the root of domination, and with it, the root of our dysfunctional civilization? He writes (it’s so clear and good, I quote at length):

In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state [er, this civ], the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoys today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at — or if they would work at all. Women, too, generally set up their own daily schedules and paced themselves on an individual basis. There were few routines. People did what they had to do, but the where and when of it was not laid out by someone else. No executives, foremen or bosses stood apart, measuring and counting.

No one said how many deer or rabbits you had to catch or how many wild yams you had to dig up. A man might decide it was a good day to string his bow, pile on thatch, look for feathers, or lounge about the camp. A woman might decide to look for grubs, collect firewood, plait a basket, or visit her mother. If the cultures of modern band and village peoples can be relied upon to reveal the past, work got done this way for tens of thousands of years. Moreover, wood for the bow, leaves for the thatch, birds for the feathers, logs for the grubs, fiber for the basket — all were there for everyone to take. Earth, water, plants, and game were communally owned. Every man and woman held title to an equal share of nature. Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.

With the rise of the state all of this was swept away. For the past five or six millennia, nine-tenths of all the people who ever lived did so as peasants or as members of some other servile caste or class. With the rise of the state, ordinary men seeking to use nature’s bounty had to get someone else’s permission and had to pay for it with taxes, tribute, or extra labor. The weapons and techniques of war and organized aggression were taken away from them and turned over to specialist-soldiers and policemen controlled by military, religious, and civil bureaucrats. For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, 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.

How did this happen?

How the heck indeed. Here is Harris’ logic.

  1. Forager peoples were unable to effectively limit their population growth.
  2. Population pressure forced them into intensification of food production.
  3. Intensification of production led to domestication of plants and animals and other aspects of what we see in the historical record as “agriculture”, and sooner or later, sedentary settlement.
  4. Farmers tend to encourage intensification by conspicuously rewarding those who work harder than others (and by creating institutions that do so).
  5. These early rewarded production-intensifiers are known in anthropology as the Big Men (or lately as aggrandizers). They specialize in getting people to work harder, and in redistributing the resulting bounty via feasts and ritual celebrations. They accumulate followers and renown, rather than wealth. Production-intensifiers are the new cultural heroes, the community benefactors and “great providers”; they are the people to whom power flows and who are readily given leadership roles.
  6. The Big Men build exclusive club houses for their male followers, where they reward them with prostitutes and copious amounts of delicacies. It is not much of a step to begin diverting some of the wealth to equipping and training these men as warriors, and leading them into war parties where booty provides further rewards.
  7. Under certain conditions, amidst growing imbalance of power between ordinary producers and redistributors, these Big Men gradually set themselves up above their fellows, skim off more and more of the surplus that flows through them for self-aggrandizement, image-building, and solidifying their monopoly over coercion, and become the original nucleus of the ruling classes of the first states. And so, as Harris notes, we end up with a system where “those who worked hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.”

Makes a lot of sense to me. Marvin Harris’s writings ought to be widely read. He touches on many other topics including the subordination of women, the origin or war, shifting patterns of human and animal sacrifice, and the origin of vegetarian diets. I was particularly intrigued by his claim that domestication was “the greatest conservation movement of all times,” whereby certain tasty animals were saved from extinction that surely would have followed from their ongoing overhunting. What a shame they didn’t start with the mini-mammoths!

My disagreement with him is primarily with the starting point of his sequence. The argument regarding forager population control does not hold water. He wrote in the days when “population pressure” was widely regarded as the engine that drove the origin of agriculture so it is not surprising that he thought this way. His argument goes as follows: Forager women’s fertility adds to about 4 children per woman, taking into account their lean body mass, “contraceptive on the hip” effect, and disease. That’s twice the replacement level. Therefore, foragers had to engage in life-threatening abortions and particularly in infanticide. Nobody likes to kill their own babies. Therefore people would rather work harder and intensify. (In addition, he argues rather ingeniously that it was female infanticide balanced by the killing of young men in warfare that kept the population in check. What about death in childbirth? What about early childhood mortality?)

I have studied two cultures that were successful in limiting their populations, and while infanticide played a role in one (Tikopia), it did not play a role in the other (Moriori). And more to the point, the whole culture was shaped as to limit population. Even in Tikopia abortion or infanticide was more of a last resort. Exhortation by the chiefs, peer pressure to remain unmarried and childless, coitus interruptus, marriage customs (only first sons were allowed to reproduce), dangerous heroic sea voyages, and no doubt many other supporting customs combined to keep population maintaining at a steady state. The Moriori, about whom less is known, are said to have used castration of a certain percentage of the boys as their primary population limiting measure, and since they regarded killing other humans with horror, infanticide (or warfare) was not in their repertoire. (There must be much more to the story because obviously, even one man can impregnate all the fertile women in a small society.) The picture I see is cultures that have woven population limits deep into their cultural fabric. When they were motivated, they did have the tools to be successful. And these were sedentary tribes! This is why I do not accept Harris’ thesis that it was population pressure that started the whole cycle… along with archeological reports that do not support the population pressure hypothesis.

I continue to side with Daniel Quinn and others who maintain that more food leads to more people (other things being equal), and not the other way around. It all starts with the intensification of food production. Population pressure is the result, not the cause. Population growth is a function of the food supply. Once intensification of food production got under way, once either foragers and cultivators got onto the “more food, more people” treadmill that Quinn describes so ably in his Story of B (B’s lecture on population), the “food race” became a vicious circle, a positive feedback loop.

Finishing the chapter in Cannibals and Kings that describes his formidable logic in detail (viz chapter 7, The Origin of Pristine States), Harris says poignantly:

The consolidation of governmental power would have taken place as a series of natural, beneficial and only slightly extra-legal responses to current conditions, with each new acquisition of power representing only a small departure from contemporary practice. By the time the remnants of the old councils sank into impotence before the rising power of the king, no one would remember the time when the king had been only a glorified Big Man whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives.

Then, let us remember. Let us make it part of the Great Remembering.

big man

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?