I had (minor) knee surgery last week, and have spent most of the last eight days on the sofa. About the only silver lining to this situation is that I have read a tonne: four entire books, to be precise.
One of these books was Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Sapiens had been on my readerly radar for a while: first published in English in 2014, it was a huge bestseller, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. I’m a sucker for zoomed-out, macro views of human history, and the book had been recommended to me by a number of discerning folk. So, finally, with an ice pack wrapped around my knee, I dived in.
Sapiens is one of those non-fictional works which has the sweep and ambition of epic storytelling. I absolutely loved it, devouring it in two short days. It is a vast book, which defies summary, so I won’t try. But I thought I’d share one of the more provocative sections of its argument. Essentially, argues Sapiens, in a variety of ways, we are worse off than hunter-gatherers. The price of what we tend to refer to uncritically as “progress” has been high. Sounds bonkers, on the surface, doesn’t it? Who wants to live outdoors, sans Netflix or iPhones, hunting wild animals and washing in rivers? Basically everything most modern humans aspire towards – a big comfortable house, expensive computing technology, the ownership of the imaginary resource that is money, a highly selective (if not non-existent) engagement with the natural world – represents the anthesis of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And yet. Keep an open mind. As Harari explains…
or 2.5 million years, humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without their intervention. Homo erectus, Homo ergaster and the Neanderthals plucked wild figs and hunted wild sheep without deciding where fig trees would take root, in which meadow a herd of sheep should graze, or which billy goat would inseminate which nanny goat. Homo sapiens spread from East Africa to the Middle East, to Europe and Asia, and finally to Australia and America – but everywhere they went, Sapiens too continued to live by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Why do anything else when your lifestyle feeds you amply and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and political dynamics?
All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution.
The transition to agriculture began around 9500–8500 BC in the hill country of south-eastern Turkey, western Iran, and the Levant. It began slowly and in a restricted geographical area. Wheat and goats were domesticated by approximately 9000 BC; peas and lentils around 8000 BC; olive trees by 5000 BC; horses by 4000 BC; and grapevines in 3500 BC. Some animals and plants, such as camels and cashew nuts, were domesticated even later, but by 3500 BC the main wave of domestication was over. Even today, with all our advanced technologies, more than 90 per cent of the calories that feed humanity come from the handful of plants that our ancestors domesticated between 9500 and 3500 BC – wheat, rice, maize (called ‘corn’ in the US), potatoes, millet and barley. No noteworthy plant or animal has been domesticated in the last 2,000 years. If our minds are those of hunter-gatherers, our cuisine is that of ancient farmers…By the first century AD the vast majority of people throughout most of the world were agriculturists.
Why did agricultural revolutions erupt in the Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa? The reason is simple: most species of plants and animals can’t be domesticated. Sapiens could dig up delicious truffles and hunt down woolly mammoths, but domesticating either species was out of the question. The fungi were far too elusive, the giant beasts too ferocious. Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered, only a few were suitable candidates for farming and herding. Those few species lived in particular places, and those are the places where agricultural revolutions occurred.
Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.
That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.
Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.
Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.
Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous?
Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them…
The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for cultivating wheat. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.
How did wheat convince Homo sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence? What did it offer in return? It did not offer a better diet. Remember, humans are omnivorous apes who thrive on a wide variety of foods. Grains made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the Agricultural Revolution. A diet based on cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins, hard to digest, and really bad for your teeth and gums.
Wheat did not give people economic security. The life of a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Foragers relied on dozens of species to survive, and could therefore weather difficult years even without stocks of preserved food. If the availability of one species was reduced, they could gather and hunt more of other species. Farming societies have, until very recently, relied for the great bulk of their calorie intake on a small variety of domesticated plants. In many areas, they relied on just a single staple, such as wheat, potatoes or rice. If the rains failed or clouds of locusts arrived or if a fungus learned how to infect that staple species, peasants died by the thousands and millions.
Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. The early farmers were at least as violent as their forager ancestors, if not more so. Farmers had more possessions and needed land for planting. The loss of pasture land to raiding neighbours could mean the difference between subsistence and starvation, so there was much less room for compromise. When a foraging band was hard pressed by a stronger rival, it could usually move on. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was feasible. When a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village, retreat meant giving up fields, houses and granaries. In many cases, this doomed the refugees to starvation. Farmers, therefore, tended to stay put and fight to the bitter end…
Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.
A much more representative viewpoint is that of a three-year-old girl dying from malnutrition in first-century China because her father’s crops have failed. Would she say ‘I am dying from malnutrition, but in 2,000 years, people will have plenty to eat and live in big air-conditioned houses, so my suffering is a worthwhile sacrifice’?
What then did wheat offer agriculturists, including that malnourished Chinese girl? It offered nothing for people as individuals. Yet it did bestow something on Homo sapiens as a species. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory, and thereby enabled Homo sapiens to multiply exponentially. Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.
The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies.
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Get more on the fascinating Sapiens here.