[Marxism] Agriculture: The Worst Mistake Humans Ever Made

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 20 19:06:38 MDT 2019

On 7/20/19 7:22 PM, Louis Proyect via Marxism wrote:
> On 7/20/19 11:58 AM, John A Imani via Marxism wrote:
> The U. of Utah security system hiccuped on the link that John supplied. 
> Try using 
> #https://secure-web.cisco.com/1Z6oEdFkIPDCDhBB6OZ95XddVw24FzSEkl2TSKLpuzDwZ8kv3szjMZ6AbOtOFvGSQx5DFtKxpw-lwVkEkL3_jdWNpUfFnGevdsGgXOuBZ3hp6sEY3WdYqPAyNTIcP7ai5NttQ7ELFqWs96d5UwoeGgYs873zxkCPoWwwi-udPTpFzL-EFYwZhdunUSDxLzET0Denme0Ha9dDnFVPdg9kCCVt5jlLh-S9gldyOq8UDnuCGp-cZTwU2lVTbO40NoKSl49L5mQPkJIizaYfDerzM2wUb7vE2hrReTNaLTe5y6_Z0TOYIMJLTj-1K9IPMdiS1xKBYD1gHFRkCOpfc6davyZD3KWnDr8SpReYw5DqFeehdZTXe93v5wFMVhG_3Q1Dd/https%3A%2F%2Fwww.economist.com%2Fchristmas-specials%2F2007%2F12%2F19%2Fnoble-or-savage# 
> after removing the pound signs. If you run into a paywall problem, 
> contact me or John offlist.


That didn't work.

I might as well send the entire article.

The era of the hunter-gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden 
that some suggest

HUMAN beings have spent most of their time on the planet as 
hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of 
agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with 
gathered veg. Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the 
Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who 
still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking 
specimens--strong, slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small 
plant-fibre belt round the waist--they are the very model of the noble 
savage. Genetics suggests that indigenous Andaman islanders have been 
isolated since the very first expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 
years ago.

About 12,000 years ago people embarked on an experiment called 
agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never 
recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin 
deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank 
by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East. 
So was agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race", 
as Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist and professor of geography at 
the University of California, Los Angeles, once called it?

Take a snapshot of the old world 15,000 years ago. Except for bits of 
Siberia, it was full of a new and clever kind of people who had 
originated in Africa and had colonised first their own continent, then 
Asia, Australia and Europe, and were on the brink of populating the 
Americas. They had spear throwers, boats, needles, adzes, nets. They 
painted pictures, decorated their bodies and believed in spirits. They 
traded foods, shells, raw materials and ideas. They sang songs, told 
stories and prepared herbal medicines.

They were "hunter-gatherers". On the whole the men hunted and the women 
gathered: a sexual division of labour is still universal among 
non-farming people and was probably not shared by their Homo erectus 
predecessors. This enabled them to eat both meat and veg, a clever trick 
because it combines quality with reliability.

Why change? In the late 1970s Mark Cohen, an archaeologist, first 
suggested that agriculture was born of desperation, rather than 
inspiration. Evidence from the Fertile Crescent seems to support him. 
Rising human population density, combined perhaps with a cooling, drying 
climate, left the Natufian hunter-gatherers of the region short of 
acorns, gazelles and wild grass seeds. Somebody started trying to 
preserve and enhance a field of chickpeas or wheat-grass and soon 
planting, weeding, reaping and threshing were born.

Quite independently, people took the same step in at least six other 
parts of the world over the next few thousand years: the Yangzi valley, 
the central valley of New Guinea, Mexico, the Andes, West Africa and the 
Amazon basin. And it seems that Eden came to an end. Not only had 
hunter-gatherers enjoyed plenty of protein, not much fat and ample 
vitamins in their diet, but it also seems they did not have to work very 
hard. The Hadza of Tanzania "work" about 14 hours a week, the !Kung of 
Botswana not much more.

The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been 
in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more 
skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they 
were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from 
domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from 
rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.

They also got a bad attack of inequality for the first time. 
Hunter-gatherers' dependence on sharing each other's hunting and 
gathering luck makes them remarkably egalitarian. A successful farmer, 
however, can afford to buy the labour of others, and that makes him more 
successful still, until eventually--especially in an irrigated river 
valley, where he controls the water--he can become an emperor imposing 
his despotic whim upon subjects. Friedrich Engels was probably right to 
identify agriculture with a loss of political innocence.

Agriculture also stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In 
many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard 
work. Among hunter-gathering folk, men usually bring fewer calories than 
women, and have a tiresome tendency to prefer catching big and 
infrequent prey so they can show off, rather than small and frequent 
catches that do not rot before they are eaten. But the men do at least 

Recently, though, anthropologists have subtly revised the view that the 
invention of agriculture was a fall from grace. They have found the 
serpent in hunter-gatherer Eden, the savage in the noble savage. Maybe 
it was not an 80,000-year camping holiday after all.

In 2006 two Indian fishermen, in a drunken sleep aboard their little 
boat, drifted over the reef and fetched up on the shore of North 
Sentinel Island. They were promptly killed by the inhabitants. Their 
bodies are still there: the helicopter that went to collect them was 
driven away by a hail of arrows and spears. The Sentinelese do not 
welcome trespassers. Only very occasionally have they been lured down to 
the beach of their tiny island home by gifts of coconuts and only once 
or twice have they taken these gifts without sending a shower of arrows 
in return.

Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was 
much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. 
 From the !Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the 
aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a 
state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at 
least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots 
of posturing, but death rates are high--usually around 25-30% of adult 
males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the 
population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois 
calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 
billion people dying during the 20th century.

At first, anthropologists were inclined to think this a modern 
pathology. But it is increasingly looking as if it is the natural state. 
Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human 
beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and 
systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two 
species. Steven LeBlanc, also of Harvard, says Rousseauian wishful 
thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of constant violence.

Not so many women as men die in warfare, it is true. But that is because 
they are often the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual 
prize was almost certainly a common female fate in hunter-gatherer 
society. Forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.

Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one 
person per square mile. Farmers can live at 100 times that density. 
Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak 
were dead. The invention of agriculture and the advent of settled 
society merely swapped high mortality for high morbidity, allowing 
people some relief from chronic warfare so they could at least grind out 
an existence, rather than being ground out of existence altogether.

Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural 
peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did 
it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories 
replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and 
illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were 
overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in 
factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of 
their birth.

Eighteenth-century rural England was a place where people starved each 
spring as the winter stores ran out, where in bad years and poor 
districts long hours of agricultural labour--if it could be got--barely 
paid enough to keep body and soul together, and a place where the 
"putting-out" system of textile manufacture at home drove workers harder 
for lower pay than even the factories would. (Ask Zambians today why 
they take ill-paid jobs in Chinese-managed mines, or Vietnamese why they 
sew shirts in multinational-owned factories.) The industrial revolution 
caused a population explosion because it enabled more babies to 
survive--malnourished, perhaps, but at least alive.

Returning to hunter-gatherers, Mr LeBlanc argues (in his book "Constant 
Battles") that all was not well in ecological terms, either. Homo 
sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There 
is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of 
the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 
years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance 
against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless 
pursuit by endurance runners.

This was also true in Eurasia. The earliest of the great cave painters, 
working at Chauvet in southern France, 32,000 years ago, was obsessed 
with rhinoceroses. A later artist, working at Lascaux 15,000 years 
later, depicted mostly bisons, bulls and horses--rhinoceroses must have 
been driven close to extinction by then. At first, modern human beings 
around the Mediterranean relied almost entirely on large mammals for 
meat. They ate small game only if it was slow moving--tortoises and 
limpets were popular. Then, gradually and inexorably, starting in the 
Middle East, they switched their attention to smaller animals, and 
especially to warm-blooded, fast-breeding species, such as rabbits, 
hares, partridges and smaller gazelles. The archaeological record tells 
this same story at sites in Israel, Turkey and Italy.

The reason for this shift, say Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn of the 
University of Arizona, was that human population densities were growing 
too high for the slower-reproducing prey such as tortoises, horses and 
rhinos. Only the fast-breeding rabbits, hares and partridges, and for a 
while gazelles, could cope with such hunting pressure. This trend 
accelerated about 15,000 years ago as large game and tortoises 
disappeared from the Mediterranean diet altogether--driven to the brink 
of extinction by human predation.

In times of prey scarcity, Homo erectus, like other predators, had 
simply suffered local extinction; these new people could innovate their 
way out of trouble--they could shift their niche. In response to 
demographic pressure, they developed better weapons which enabled them 
to catch smaller, faster prey, which in turn enabled them to survive at 
high densities, though at the expense of extinguishing many larger and 
slower-breeding prey. Under this theory, the atlatl or spear-throwing 
stick was invented 18,000 years ago as a response to a Malthusian 
crisis, not just because it seemed like a good idea.

What's more, the famously "affluent society" of hunter-gatherers, with 
plenty of time to gossip by the fire between hunts and gathers, turns 
out to be a bit of a myth, or at least an artefact of modern life. The 
measurements of time spent getting food by the !Kung omitted 
food-processing time and travel time, partly because the anthropologists 
gave their subjects lifts in their vehicles and lent them metal knives 
to process food.

Agriculture was presumably just another response to demographic 
pressure. A new threat of starvation--probably during the 
millennium-long dry, cold "snap" known as the Younger Dryas about 13,000 
years ago--prompted some hunter-gatherers in the Levant to turn much 
more vegetarian. Soon collecting wild grass seeds evolved into planting 
and reaping crops, which reduced people's intake of proteins and 
vitamins, but brought ample calories, survival and fertility.

The fact that something similar happened six more times in human history 
over the next few thousand years--in Asia, New Guinea, at least three 
places in the Americas and one in Africa--supports the notion of 
invention as a response to demographic pressure. In each case the early 
farmers, though they might be short, sick and subjugated, could at least 
survive and breed, enabling them eventually to overwhelm the remaining 
hunter-gatherers of their respective continents.

It is irrelevant to ask whether we would have been better off to stay as 
hunter-gatherers. Being a niche-shifting species, we could not help 
moving on. Willingly or not, humanity had embarked 50,000 years ago on 
the road called "progress" with constant change in habits driven by 
invention mothered by necessity. Even 40,000 years ago, technology and 
lifestyle were in a state of continuous change, especially in western 
Eurasia. By 34,000 years ago people were making bone points for spears, 
and by 26,000 years ago they were making needles. Harpoons and other 
fishing tackle appear at 18,000 years ago, as do bone spear throwers, or 
atlatls. String was almost certainly in use then--how do you catch 
rabbits except in nets and snares?

Nor was this virtuosity confined to practicalities. A horse, carved from 
mammoth-ivory and worn smooth by being used as a pendant, dates from 
32,000 years ago in Germany. By the time of Sungir, an open-air 
settlement from 28,000 years ago at a spot near the city of Vladimir, 
north-east of Moscow, people were being buried with thousands of 
laboriously carved ivory beads and even little wheel-shaped bone ornaments.

Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, 
the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of 
this progressive change. It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may 
have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern 
Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated 
another species--the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took 
the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the 
mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years 
ago to appear eventually.

There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological 
crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We 
have been solving them, too. Pessimists will point out that each 
solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists 
that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the 
extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating 
first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced 
starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion 
people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion 
on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and 
tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, 
there will be another issue waiting for us.

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