(Or why and how our ancestors gave up on hunter-gathering, and why it was a terrible mistake)
Anthropologist Jared Diamond has described the invention of agriculture (and the beginning of the end of foraging as a primary means of sustenance) as the worst mistake in the history of the human race. He claims the idea of “progress” over the past ten thousand years is largely a myth and that in many ways or ancestors who foraged for a living were better off than we are. Certainly they were better off than the early farmers who replaced them, both in terms of physical health and the way their societies operated. Diamond’s argument is that the obvious answer to the question “Why did our ancestors replace foraging with agriculture?” is wrong. That obvious answer is “Because it delivers more food for less work”, and it is wrong because the foragers had far more free time, and were healthier, than the farmers who replaced or displaced them.
It turns out that at least most of the time, hunter-gathering is a more efficient means of sustaining a group of humans than farming is. If you think about it, this shouldn’t be remotely surprising: nature does nearly all of the work for hunter-gatherers, whereas farmers have to nurture and prepare the ground, not to mention felling trees and grinding out stumps to make way for agriculture in the first place. Neolithic farmers did this with nothing but stone, antler and wood with which to make tools. The foragers also had a more varied and healthier diet, for a fairly obvious reason: foragers end up eating whatever they can find, whereas the farmers concentrated on a few crops that delivered the maximum amount of calories. These crops also often required considerably more preparatory work before they could be eaten than the food brought home by foragers.
Foraging societies were also relatively free of the grotesque class inequalities that have plagued us ever since the neolithic revolution. There are differing opinions on the reasons for this, but it is probable that the main reason is simply one of scale – foragers only ever lived in small groups, where inequalities were hard to create in the first place, and very visible and relatively easily dealt with when they did occur. Only in the larger societies permitted by farming is it possible to have an “elite” class living off the labour of the workers. Archaeologist Ian Morris has also argued that farming communities were much more violent – or much more tolerant of violence – than either foraging communities or the industrial societies that started replacing agrarian societies a couple of centuries ago. This was largely because in foraging societies, you can always run away to escape an oppressor, but in farming societies, existing in an increasingly crowded landscape, the losers in any dispute ended up incorporated into society anyway…as lowest class citizens. At its most extreme, this process leads to slavery – another evil unknown in foraging societies.
But if foraging is so great, and farming such a great mistake, how did our ancestors end up making this mistake? Why didn’t they go back to foraging?
Firstly I should say that I agree with Jared Diamond, and broadly also agree with Ian Morris – foraging as a way of life really is superior to farming, and abandoning foraging was probably the worst mistake in human history. This does have to be qualified, though. Agriculture was a necessary step on the path towards techno-industrial civilisation – we could not have gone straight from foraging to industrialisation. And techno-industrial civilisation has allowed humans to achieve incredible things – from the exploration of space to the invention of the internet. Surely these things are so incredible that the downside of agricultural and industrial civilisations are a price worth paying? Well, maybe. I certainly wouldn’t be quick to give up my car or my computer. But I am also of the opinion that civilisation as we know it is utterly unsustainable and heading towards an almighty crash (very possibly in the lifetimes of people alive today), and aside from all the human suffering that crash will involve, the wider ecosystem that survives the crash will be deeply impoverished compared to what existed when humans invented agriculture. When the dust settles, will the human survivors (assuming there are any) still think it was all worth it? Or, given the hypothetical possibility of turning the clock back, might they advise their ancestors to keep on foraging? Unfortunately, I suspect that even if we could indeed go back to before the neolithic revolution and warn those foragers about the mistake they were about to make, they’d still make it. There’s a couple of reasons for this.
The first is that it is almost impossible for human foragers not to start farming – it’s just too easy to do it. In fact, I find myself doing it myself, as do most of the other foragers I know. All it involves is taking some seeds, or bulbs, from an edible plant, and spreading them around a bit or introducing them into a new area where conditions might suit them. Very little effort is required, so while it may not always work, there’s not much to lose and you might as well have a go. The situation would have been similar at the end of the mesolithic – our foraging ancestors would have started by spreading seeds about, and maybe doing a bit of “habitat re-arrangement”. The most obvious example of this would be to fell a tree here or there, to produce an artificial clearing. This would provide habitat for the sort of plants best for foraging. It would also have had the added benefit of attracting large herbivores, which could be hunted. The origins of animal husbandry can be traced back to about the same time, and would have started with selective hunting. By deliberately targeting males, and avoiding killing females, humans began to modify the gene pool of their prey species, some of which eventually ended up being domesticated. These sorts of activities both also led to the single most revolutionary change at that time: the replacement of nomadism with sedentism. If you’re going to improve the selection of available edible plants and animals in a particular location then there’s an incentive to stop wandering and build yourself a permanent settlement (creating yet more work). So sedentism and farming – the cultivation of plants and the domestication of livestock – would have emerged in a steady, inexorable manner. It wasn’t an overnight or single decision, but the result of thousands of little steps, each of which on its own made perfect sense.
The second is that there is an even more fundamental mistake underlying this “worst mistake” and even today, 10,000 years later, we’re still making it. I believe that it will eventually lead to the collapse of techno-industrial society. That mistake is our deep resistance – our near-complete cultural inability – to choose to limit our population. We always try to find ways to support further growth instead, but ultimately this has got to be unsustainable. Knowing that it is unsustainable won’t stop us from doing it, but right now we haven’t even reached that stage – mainstream politics and economics haven’t even acknowledged that growth is unsustainable (which is why the oxymoronic term “sustainable growth” is still in use). Even more unfortunately, our current gargantuan population, still rapidly expanding even as birth rates fall, is critically dependent on the industrial-scale use of non-renewable resources to produce and supply food: fossil fuels. As Ian Morris points out, this is in essence a return to foraging – a disastrous one. It is “foraging” in the sense that those fossil fuels are just found and removed from the ground by humans – we don’t “produce” them in the sense that pre-industrial farming socities produced food.
So we have an answer: farming replaced foraging not because it is a more efficient way of sustaining humans, nor because it leads to better societal conditions, but because it allows for a larger population to be sustained on a particular area of land. You might think that being able to produce more food per acre of land would improve food security, but, of course, it does nothing of the sort. All it does is allow the population to grow, meaning there are more mouths to feed than there were before, demanding ever more effort to grow ever more food. Suddenly that first agricultural revolution begins to look less like progress and more like a trap, or a vicious circle. And if it really is a trap, then not only are we are well and truly still stuck in it, but we have very little, or no, chance of escape. What will happen, instead, is the very thing we have been trying to avoid all along: an involuntary reduction in the human population level.
We can only hope that once that process is finished, and the human population is reduced back down to a sustainable level, any post-crash culture that emerges from the rubble will finally have learned the lesson we refused to learn: the size of the human population and the human operation on this planet must be kept under control; growth is bad.
Jared Diamond: The worst mistake in the history of the human race http://www.ditext.com/diamond/mistake.html.
Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse.
Ian Morris: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels – How Human Values Evolve
Campana et all: Before Farming – Hunter-Gatherer Society and Subsistence
Cafaro et all: Life on the Brink – Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation
John Michael Greer: The Long Descent – A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age