Was Agriculture the worst blunder the human race ever made?
For most of the human history on Earth, after the apperance of modern human almost 300,000years back in Africa, we have largely lived as hunter-gatherers i.e hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. This kind of a life style has been traditionally thought of, by many experts, as being short lived, brutish and nasty as each day was a new struggle to find food as none was grown or stored. Humans lived in temporary shelters, moved in small groups, were often highly mobile and their diet depended on whatever the environment provided each season.
Enter agriculture and domestication (Neolithic Revolution) some 13,000years back making possible increasingly large population leading to permanent human settlements forming the basis of modern human civilization as we know it today. At least eleven different regions of the Old and New world are know to have been the centers of origin of agriculture as was first identified by Nikolai Vavilov in 1924. Below image shows approximate centers of origin of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution and its spread ©️Joe Roe.
The question one may want to ask at this point is what made the hunter-gatherer change to agriculture for his food? The obvious answer being because agriculture provided more food than hunting or foraging which could be stored and took less time to gather. Simply put agriculture provided humans with an efficient way to get more food for less amount of work. Infact one could argue that it was the adoption of agriculture that gave humans much needed time in hand to be able to compose music, create beautiful architecture, develope language and also breed to further their kind. As agriculture spread, human population became larger and denser giving rise to civilizations leading to the current human population of 7.9Billion(as of March2022) where agriculture and its enhanced forms are omnipresent with only very few tibes of hunter-gatherer's remaining.
While the obvious seems logical it may not necessarily be the correct reason. How does one prove that the lives of our hunter gatherer ancestors got better by taking up farming and abandoning hunting/foraging? Are the few hunter-gatherer tribes of the 20th century really worse off than their current farming counterparts? It seems many primitive tribes like the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest (central Africa) OR San of the Kalahari Desert (southern Africa) OR Copper Inuit of the Arctic OR Khoisan of the Kalahari Desert of Namibia and Hadza nomads of Tanzania, still continue to live the same hunter-gatherer lifestyle and have plenty of leisure time in hand, sleep significantly more, and work less harder than their farming neighbors. In an article published in Discover Magazine in 1999, Pulitzer Prize winning anthropologist and National Geographic explorer, Jared Diamond, calls agriculture “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered ” and responsible for the “the gross social and sexual inequality, that curses our existence ”.
For nearly 2 million years prior to the emergence of agriculture the hunter-gatherer communities lived healthier lives, had social and sexual equality, more leisure time in hand and freedom from any form of control(government, financial institutions etc.).
Early farmers depended for their food primarily on a couple of high-carbohydrate, low-nutrient-density crops like grains and potatoes while the gatherer-hunter diet was comprised of a more varied mix of wild plants and animals, providing a better balance of nutrients. The agricultural revolution according to Jared Diamond provided “cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition”. Even today just three starchy plants – wheat, rice, and corn – provide the majority of the calories consumed by the human race and all three are deficient in vitamins and amino acids essential to life. Pre-agricultural humans were taller, stronger, and healthier than the the post-agricultural population. Paleopathologists examining skeletons found in Greece and Turkey from the end of ice-age are seen to be at least half a foot taller than the skeletons of their agricultural descendant from 3000 BC. Similar study of native American skeletons from the Ohio and Illinois river valleys(Dickson Mounds) showed the price the farming population had to pay when maize farming was adopted around 1150 AD compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors – nearly a 50% increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia, a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably due to a lot of hard physical labor. According to George Armelagos of the University of Massachusetts, life expectancy at birth in pre-agricultural society was only about twenty-six years while it was nineteen years in the post-agricultural society.
Because the farming population grew only a couple of different crops they ran the risk of starvation if even one crop failed. Comparatively the hunter-gatherer ate a vide variety of wild nuts, berries, fruits and roots and so it was highly unlikely that they could die of starvation.
Agriculture encouraged people to stay in crowded societies and higher population density encouraged epidemic disease. Some archaeologists reason it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease. But it can be seen as a “chicken-and-egg" argument as crowding encourages agriculture and agriculture encourages crowding. Epidemics were not prevelant when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camps. According to Diamond “Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities”.
Agriculture also affected social equality. As Diamond mentions “Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic infectious disease, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: a deep class division. As hunter-gatherers were nomadic they did not store food. They ate and shared whatever food they obtained each day. With no food resources, like orchards or herds of sheep there was nothing to guard, protect, own or fight over. Therefore, there could be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Thus with the advent of agriculture the elite became better off, but most people became worse off ”. This nutritional inequality of agricultural societies still exists in the world today. Farming led to inequality between the sexes too. Agricultural women under pressure to produce more hands to be used in the fields had to give birth to far more children compared to hunter-gatherer women, which also was damaging to their bodies. Examination of the Chilean mummies has revealed that more women than men had bone lesions from infectious disease.
The argument that a farming population had more leisure time in hand than a hunter gatherer population also lacks merit. Even today the Bushmen of South Africa spend an average of only 12 to 19 hours a week obtaining food – which is also what the hunter-gatherers would have done, other than build an occasional new grass-hut. The Hadza of Tanzania spend less than 14 hours a week to feed themselves. And this activity of the hunter-gatherer of collecting food is even hardly be considered to be work. In fact, most don’t have a word for “work” in their languages and consider their “work” to be play as their “work” is skill intensive, not labor intensive, does not take many hours, and is done with friends, when they feel like doing it, not when they are forced to do it. When asked why his tribe did not take up agriculture like neighboring tribes, a Bushmen replied – “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” Foraged food can be consumed immediately with requirement of tilling, planting, fertilizing, weeding, storing, preserving, cooking, saving countless hours of labor. Similarly an animal killed by one hunter in a few hours, and cooked by a group of them in a few more, could feed the entire tribe – and perhaps a neighboring tribe – for days. Without stored food to fight over, hunter-gatherers shared everything for mutual survival.
As Jared Diamond says, “Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny".
We know that for close to 2 million years, the human species has lived sutainably without agriculture. But do you think our 10,000year long experiment with agriculture has set us so far back with poor health, slavery and environmental degradation that it is unclear whether we can ever recover??
The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race
History of Agriculture
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The Hadza: Freest People on Earth Face Extinction
National Geeographic Hunter-Gatherer Collection
Are Hunter-Gatherers The Happiest Humans To Inhabit Earth?