Can we say, three cheers for learning new things? In recent weeks I’ve felt a little in a rut, writing my thesis and having limited classroom interactions, but I started a new course today on “20th Century Agricultural Economy and Politics” and it’s looking to be oh-so-interesting. One of our textbooks is called “Agriculture in World History” and starts at the veeery beginning, when hunter-gatherer societies first settled down and domesticated plants and livestock, starting around 10’000 BC. What made them do so is a contested question in agricultural history, and even more contentious is the question of whether this was a lucky or unlucky development. For the majority of historians, the progressivist view of history means that agriculture was the stepping stone for civilization as we know it today, and the sine qua non for societal, technological and cultural developments. However, there is also a revisionist account out there, popularized by Jared Diamond (author of ‘Collapse’, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and other popular history books), who called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” in a 1987 essay (which you can read at the link).
His argument is as fascinating as compelling, at least at first glance – basically, he says that early hunter-gatherers shot themselves in the foot by switching over to the domestication of plants and livestock, exchanging a rather leisurely grab-as-you-go way of procuring your foodstuffs to the toil-and-sweat of farm labor. He points out that early arguments about the efficiency of agriculture don’t hold up if you consider estimates that present-day hunter-gatherers only require 12 to 19 hours a week to find enough food for their survival. However, once you start relying on one food crop too much and investing too much time in its cultivation, you play yourself in a corner where you have to continue working with it to make sure the end result pays off.
Then, when it does – Diamond claims – you get to deal with a whole host of other problems. The reliance on a rather limited amount of carbohydrate-dense crops as main staple food, rather than the varied diet of fruit, nuts and meat when hunting and gathering, may have lead to the smaller stature and worse health condition of early agriculturalists compared to their hunter-gatherer brethren. Plus, the clumping of people encouraged the spreading of contagious diseases.
Even worse, according to the author, are the social divides that start to emerge when it’s no longer every man for himself – or the one-for-all, all-for-one mentality of attacking a larger animal -, but when a majority of workers can plausibly feed a minority of non-working elites. Plus, Diamond says, even the subjugation of women can be linked to agriculture, since the sedentary lifestyle allowed for more frequent pregnancies, a greater division of tasks and higher demands on women laborers to contribute on the field as well as in the household. He closes with this rather bombastic statement:
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering facade, and that have so far eluded us?
While the piece is thought-provoking, it’s also simplistic in its cause-and-effect interpretations. As my history book argued, many of these issues that Diamond brings up are not inextricably linked to agriculture – we could have found ways to settle down without the subordination of women and the enslavement of the main labor groups, and indeed there exist societies that have done so. Other pre-historic societies had those issues without carrying out agricultural activities.
Furthermore, the current mainstream view of agricultural history contends that foraging was simply not a solution anymore for a growing population that had already killed off most of the larger animal species to be hunted in the vicinity. Only through the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle was it possible to support the population development as it was occurring.
Yet, it’s really interesting to carry such critical thoughts further, especially as they relate to our societal treatment of our food source and farmers, which have been for large parts of history subordinated by elites and the urban population. My textbook talks about the ambivalent role of civilization when seen through the lens of the farmer, where it is both the synonym for progress and development, as well as for the “domination of the town over the village, of the townsman over the peasant“. And to a certain extent, that is still true today, I would argue – in different contexts, depending on whether we are looking at the global North or South, and at a regional or international food system level, but we (as urban city dwellers and eaters) certainly have troubles to connect with the concerns and motivations of the farmers that provide us with daily sustenance, whether they are located a bike ride away or halfway across the world. And yet, agriculture is here to stay, so let’s prove that it wasn’t a mistake after all 😉
I look forward to sharing more thoughts and insights about my class here, and to learning more about the history of agriculture through the ages. Learning rules!