The Agricultural Revolution

By Branden Holmes (Surroundx) on November 28, 2010

About 8,000 BC a major turning point occured in the Near East, the so-called "Fertile Crescent". People there started to grow their own food; they began to give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles in favour of something much more permanent. As is often the case, this probably happened independently in at least five areas around the world: the Fertile Crescent, China, India, the New Guinean highlands, the New World, the Ethiopian highlands, the Sahel, and West Africa (Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale, 2005, pp. 27; new genetic evidence confirms that the farmers of Europe were actually from the Middle-east; a people who brought their farming practices all the way to Europe). Several earlier domestications occurred, including the dog 12-18,000 years ago, but virtually all domestications around the world occurred between 8,000 BC and 1500 BC.

Domestication of both plants and animals guaranteed a permanent food source, and thus allowed people to stay in one place as long as there was a permanent water source nearby. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution the plants and animals that Neolithic (stone age) people cultivated would have been plucked straight from the wild and unconsciously trialled in a domestic setting. But most species are unsuitable for domesticating; plants because they don't produce anything of value to us, and animals because "a wild animal must possess a whole suite of unusual characteristics for domestication to succeed." (Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, pp. 216). Because these species were adapted to their natural environment, they wouldn’t have been entirely suitable as a purely food source. Unconsciously over hundreds and then thousands of years, people modified these aboriginal stocks into many new varieties, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: “It has consisted in always cultivating the best-known variety, sowing its seeds, and, when a slightly better variety chanced to appear, selecting it, and so onwards...A large amount of change, thus slowly and unconsciously accumulated...[G]iven of the important part which selection by man has played, it becomes at once obvious, how it is that our domestic races how adaptation in their structure or in their habits to man’s wants or fancies.” (Darwin, Origin, pp. 56-7,7,8) It would seem then that the agricultural revolution was entirely positive. With almost no way to preserve meat and vegetables for long periods, hunter-gatherers had to hunt, catch or harvest their own food everyday. Creating a permanent food source meant that people could settle-down permanently in one area. And having some permanency they were able to pass along their farms to the next generation, and thus create progress which had been lacking since life began. But as Jared Diamond points out in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, the shift to agriculture was a ‘double-edged sword’: “With agriculture came not only greatly increased food production and food storage, but also the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse modern human existence. Thus, among the human cultural hallmarks...agriculture represents in its mixed blessings a halfway station between our noble traits...and our unmitigated vices...” (Jared Diamond, pp. 163) Thus, we had to take a great leap backwards to go forwards; down a hill to go up a mountain. But why did it take so long for the revolution to happen? Why didn’t people think to grow their own food for so long? Questions such as these must unfortunately lay beyond our knowledge, at least for now. Physical evidence cannot tell us exactly what the first agriculturalists thought, or what any hunter-gatherer was thinking. Most likely they didn’t realize it was an option, or they lived in areas unsuitable for agriculture, with unreliable rainfall. But we can however, probe the lives of some of the last truly hunter-gatherer people, to compare the two. And we find surprising results: "Scattered throughout the world, mainly in areas unsuitable for agriculture, several dozen groups of so-called 'primitive people', like the Kalahari Desert Bushmen, continued to live as hunter-gatherers in recent years. Astonishingly it turns out that these hunters generally have leisure time, sleep a lot, and work no harder than their farming neighbours." (Ibid., pp. 166)

Related articles:
agriculture, civilization, farming, food

About Branden Holmes
I am an amateur evolutionist interested in the theoretical side of the subject.

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