Uncommon Sense

November 11, 2020

Getting It Straight

Filed under: Culture,Education,History — Steve Ruis @ 11:08 am
Tags: , , ,

I am currently making my way through a book “Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History” which I am finding quite enjoyable. I reached the point in human history at which agriculture had been developed in multiple sites around the world. Here is a snippet of that discussion:

“The development of agriculture offered huge advantages to the societies that adopted it, despite the continuous labor involved in working the land and nourishing the crops. Settled peoples are capable of much faster population growth than hunter-gatherers. Children do not have to be carried long distances and babies can be weaned off of breast milk (and fed with milled grain) much earlier, which means women can give birth more often. And in agricultural societies, more children are an advantage for they can care for more crops and livestock, mind their younger siblings and process food at home. Farmers beget farmers very effectively.

Even with primitive techniques, an area of fertile land can produce ten times more food for humans when under cultivation that when used for foraging and hunting. But agriculture is also a trap. Once a society has adopted cultivation and its numbers have grown, it is impossible to revert to a simpler lifestyle; the larger population becomes entirely dependent upon farming to produce enough food for everyone. There’s no turning back. And there are other consequences, too. High-density, settled populations supported by farming soon develop highly stratified social structures, resulting in reduced equality and a greater disparity of wealth and freedom compared to hunter-gatherers.”

This is the standard patter on this topic and it is all true . . . but, oh, my there are so many carts that have been placed before the horses, so many it is hard to know where to start a critique.

I will start with “Settled peoples are capable of much faster population growth than hunter-gatherers. Children do not have to be carried long distances and babies can be weaned off of breast milk (and fed with milled grain) much earlier, which means women can give birth more often.” Does anyone actually think that early hunter-gatherer human beings thought about population growth beyond their own family? Even within their own family, women continued to nurse their children for quite a while because it did give protection against pregnancy. We know this because one of the actions when one tribe of humans “conquered” another tribe, was that they often killed the children, so that their mothers could become pregnant with their babies sooner.

Plus this “birth control” happened naturally, and “milled cereal grains” was not an effective substitute for mother’s milk. First of all “milled” grain didn’t exist then, only coarse, stone ground cereal did, which was harder to digest, required longer cooking, and was nowhere near as nutritious as breast milk; all of which was easily observed.

So, who benefited from having a larger population? The argument is there would be more hands to do work, but also there would be more mouths to feed. And a larger population guaranteed that all the prey animals in the area would be hunted into oblivion, as would the shellfish, fish, and other contributors to a healthy diet. (Think about what happened to the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Oregon. Hint: they ended up dragging a dead elk for three days back to their encampment to have something at all to eat.)

I do not think there was much of a society to make such decisions. Which brings me to: “The development of agriculture offered huge advantages to the societies that adopted it.” Societies didn’t adopt agriculture; people did. Before there were the first cities, there were many, many, many small villages which supported small populations of humans who mixed in a little agriculture (you had to hang around to tend/protect your crops) with hunting and gathering. Usually these were near a stream or river, which supplied fresh water as well as fish, shellfish, etc. Agriculture happened through the accumulation a small, family level efforts. It was never “adopted by societies.”

Which brings me to “High-density, settled populations supported by farming soon develop highly stratified social structures, resulting in reduced equality and a greater disparity of wealth and freedom compared to hunter-gatherers.” Excuse me but high density populations could not form until extensive agriculture was under way. This means irrigation controls, crop land controls with protections from foraging animals, and all of this over many, many hectares of land. This only happened because of “highly stratified social structures” existing first. Kings, viziers, priests, et. al. were the designers and organizers of “high density populations.” The archaeological evidence for this is overwhelming. Agriculture didn’t cause the stratification, large-scale agriculture was caused by the stratification.

Who benefits when “Farmers beget farmers very effectively.” It is not the farmers so much as it is the elites who are confiscating the “excess grain” to support them and their lifestyles. Grain is at the heart of most of these high-density populations because it can be dried and stored and so protect the community from the vagaries of weather and climate, infestations, and diseases. Since it can be dried and stored, it can also be taxed, that is confiscated. All of this requires a stratified society. The elites started in charge and they have stayed in charge, by hook or crook.

What was left out of the “standard patter” above is slavery. The elites took advantage of their confiscation of the “excess labor” (nice euphemism, that) of the masses to expand the number of elites (people who did not grow food or hunt for a living) in the form of “soldiers’ who raided nearby villages for slaves. Slaves did not need to be paid, just fed and only minimally at that and well, slaves beget slaves very effectively. The development of large scale agriculture also lead to the development of a large scale slavery.

Only the elites benefited from the growth of this “society.” The elites got lives of physical ease and even wealth and all the farmers and slaves got was . . . trapped. (It is a well-known fact that when agriculture became widespread, human beings became shorter, lighter, and more disease ridden. It is presumed this was due to the switch from a rich, varied diet to a vastly more narrow one.)

It is much easier on our egos to say “look at what agriculture did to us” as opposed to admitting that the greed of elites drove the whole process.

* * *

I do not blame the author for this lack of precision, there is only so much one person can know. I am, as I said, enjoying this book, and will report on the whole thing later.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.