I’m continuing to work my way through Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and have just finished his section on the agricultural revolution. This is the transition from a hunter-gatherer foraging lifestyle, which humanity had followed for hundreds of thousands of years, to a settled farming one about 12,000 years ago.
Harari describes the transition to farming as almost happening by accident, where foraging for grains led to some of it falling out of containers on the ground in places and sprouting, that effect eventually being noticed, and finally controlled. One thing led to another, and before people realized what had happened, they were spending the day in back breaking labor farming the fields.
He describes it as wheat actually domesticating humans rather than the other way around, since wheat went from a crop with limited ecological success to covering large portions of the planet. He characterizes it this way because he thinks that, for humans, the agricultural revolution was a disaster. We went from frolicking in the wilderness with easy lives and diverse diets, to lives of drudgery and much more limited and often inadequate diets of a few staple crops, leading to malnutrition and all kinds of new diseases.
Why didn’t people just go back to the old lifestyle? Because agriculture is a trap. Farming enabled a much larger population, and once it started to increase, it was impossible to go back. And as farming spread throughout the world, foragers were forced to either retreat or take up the plow. That and farmers quickly forgot that the foraging life had ever existed, much less how to live it.
Of course, today we look back and our current lives are pretty good. But, Harari asserts, that’s only because of millenia of progress on the backs of a humanity which was stuck in bondage to the land. He asks whether a three year old Chinese girl dying from malnutrition in first century China would take any comfort that in 2000 years it would result in the world we have.
This is an interesting notion, but I think Harari is vastly underestimating the difficulties that existed with the foraging lifestyle. He asserts that foraging population was kept under control with hormonal and genetic mechanisms for reproduction, which sounds dubious, and admits that sometimes foragers resorted to abortions and infanticide.
Actually, from what I’ve read, infanticide is pretty common in foraging populations. That and euthanasia overall, of parents too elderly to continue keeping up with the band, or of sick or seriously injured brethren. It’s been noted that the skeletons of foragers are more robust than the later farming ones, and that’s often assumed to be from a more healthy lifestyle. The idea that it represents brutal selection pressure against less robust individuals is seldom considered.
Harari discusses how vulnerable farmers were to swings in the climate, and the need to store food as a hedge against bad years. What he seems to overlook is that farmers had that ability. Foragers didn’t. They were far more vulnerable to those swings in climate. The foraging life was probably pretty good when food was plentiful, but likely brutal when it wasn’t.
All of which is to say that the hunger gatherer lifestyle was probably not the natural utopia many assume.
I’m not saying that history should be viewed as a relentless march of progress. Progress is never guaranteed. But the idea that humanity stumbled into agriculture and then trapped themselves in it seems to assume those first farmers were rubes. My experience is that when scholars assume people were idiots who didn’t understand their own interests, those scholars have become too locked into their own ideas.
But maybe I’m overlooking something?