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.
That's right! The advent and adoption of Agriculture was the worst mistake....ever.
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 façade, and that have so far eluded us?
These are a few excerts from an op-ed published in Discover Magazine by Jared Diamond in May of 1987.
At the time of publication,
archaeologists were making discoveries that painted a different picture of the past than was being postulated. The evidence provided by this article
suggests that agriculture is to blame for social and sexual inequality as well as disease and despotism.
The progressivist theory, according to Diamond, was a simple one: The lives of our primitive ancestors improved as they adopted farming and let loose
of their hunter/gatherer roots. It makes sense. Food became readily available and one would assume that liesure time and socializing ensued,
allowing for the development, perhaps, of technology and the progression of human evolution.
In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein,
considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild
plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that
way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the
average time devoted each
week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why
he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?"
Diamond goes on to provide evidence from paleoanthropologists who can determine age, sex, average height (with a large enough sample size), growth
rates of children and even identify certain diseases and conditions from a skeleton alone. The data suggest that, compared to our hunter-gatherer
ancestors, we became shorter, grew slower, became malnourished, lived shorter lives and were inflicted more frequently and easily by infectious
disease in the post-agriculture societies.
Of course, you haven't heard of any of this...so it's likely that the theory was disproven. Right? Not so much. Over the past 30 years, evidence
has been mounting in support of Diamond's opinions. Most recently, published in July of this year in the journal Economics and Human Biology
researchers release some damning evidence that delivers quite a blow to the progressivists theory.
Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: evidence from the bioarchaeological
The population explosion that followed the Neolithic revolution was initially explained by improved health experiences for agriculturalists.
However, empirical studies of societies shifting subsistence from foraging to primary food production have found evidence for deteriorating health
from an increase in infectious and dental disease and a rise in nutritional deficiencies. In Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (Cohen and
Armelagos, 1984), this trend towards declining health was observed for 19 of 21 societies undergoing the agricultural transformation. The
counterintuitive increase in nutritional diseases resulted from seasonal hunger, reliance on single crops deficient in essential nutrients, crop
blights, social inequalities, and trade. In this study, we examined the evidence of stature reduction in studies since 1984 to evaluate if the trend
towards decreased health after agricultural transitions remains. The trend towards a decrease in adult height and a general reduction of overall
health during times of subsistence change remains valid, with the majority of studies finding stature to decline as the reliance on agriculture
The impact of agriculture, accompanied by increasing population density and a rise in infectious disease, was observed to decrease stature in
populations from across the entire globe and regardless of the temporal period during which agriculture was adopted, including Europe, Africa, the
Middle East, Asia, South America, and North America.
Among health deterioration was social wasting. Sexual and social inequality, according to Diamond, was also the direct result of agriculture.
Only in afarming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at
Mycenae c.1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had
better teeth. Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the élite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold
lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.
Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and
under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter- gatherer
counterparts–with consequent drains on their health. Among the Chilean mummies for example, more women than men had bone lesions from infectious
What if starvation, warefare and tyranny aren't conspiratorially driven facets that plague the modern world? Is it really possible that the simple
act of trying to increase food production led, ironically enough, to starvation and disease? Or that in an effort to increase population, we
effectively paved the way for its division and social classifications? It's an interesting theory..but if it's true, can we dig ourselves out of