One of the abiding mysteries and polemics in Anthropology and Earth Science has
long been the almost simultaneous appearance of agriculture in the Middle East,
South America, and China, among other areas. It seems to me the answer is simple;
The question of
the origin of agriculture is key to understanding the beginning
of civilization, language, culture and basically everything we associate with
our lives on this planet. The question of why it happened and why it happened
when it did, after humans had been wandering over significant portions of the
planet for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, with no
apparent need or desire to settle down and get civilized, has generated many
Most scientists agree that the discovery of agriculture was the origin of civilization.
Suddenly, people didn’t need to spend all their time following herds of hapless
animals, grouting around for roots and wild berries, and eating insects. They
could stay in one place, or at least the women could, which gave them time, while
the men were still out hunting (like secret societies and pissing contests, men
have been very slow to give up hunting), to invent things like embroidery and
Agriculture also allowed the production and accumulation of food surpluses, allowing
humans to survive periods of low or no food collection, and requiring people
to think about preserving their food surpluses, as well as protecting them. This
the food, together with the populations explosion engendered by the newly reliable
food supply, led to the building of fixed, defendable structures, thicker walls,
stronger foundations. In adition, the dynamic of social organization had changed.
most successful model the mobile tribe or clan, a lean unclean foraging machine.
Suddenly larger groups, capable of building huge structures and defending a fixed
advantageous. These groups didn’t require that all of their members be capable
of running hard after
a herd of antelopes, enabling the survival of old people,
cowards and slow runners. This in turn gave us respect for elders, accumulated
wisdom, and geeks with enough time on their hands to invent stuff like the lost
wax method and the internet.
Researchers also agree that it was most likely women who invented or discovered
agriculture. Left at camp, pregnant or with small children in tow, they obviously
noticed that when a person happened to swallow a seed from some fruit or vegetable
they had scavenged, and it emerged undigested in the communal shitpile, it would
sometimes crack open and tiny green stems and leaves would emerge. It’s not much
of a leap from there to the brilliant idea of actually PLACING the seeds in the
ground, perhaps with some shit for luck, and watching the baby food plants grow.
Of course, if the seed in question was a peach pit, it would be a long wait for
it to grow into a tree and bear fruit. Probably most groups of Paleolithic hunter/gatherers
wouldn’t wait that long. However, other seeds would certainly emerge soon enough
for people to capture the concept (my green bean seeds came up in 8 days!)
The question remains – why didn’t our wandering ancestors get the point a bit
quicker? A hundred thousand years ago, people were pretty much the way they are
in stature, intelligence and physical ability. So why were they content to eke
out an existence from buffalo droppings for so many centuries, when the comprehensible
cornucopia of fruits and veggies was left to lie fallow? And why did folks figure
it out at almost the same time, in separate, isolated areas around the world.
Other scientists have suspected a link between climate change and agriculture.
Ofer Bar-Yosef, an Israeli
archeologist now at Harvard who’s spent his career
studying the origin of agriculture in the Middle East, thinks a cooling trend
caused a decline in food availability, which induced our forebears to start sowing
and harvesting wheat and other cereal crops. However, this theory does not address
the question of why the effect did not occur during previous cooling trends,
such as the ice ages, and presupposes a global cooldown about 10,000 years ago
which affected all of the areas which developed early agriculture. This is not
supported by the scientific record.
The only possible answer, as far as I am concerned, is the lack of climatic stability
on the planet up until about 10,000 years ago. An accumulating body of scientific
evidence, such as the Greenland Ice Core studies, have shown that for most of
the readable history of the planet the average temperature and rainfall was highly
variable from year to year and decade to decade. The Greenland studies pulled
ice cores from deep in the glaciers, reaching back over 400,00 years, revealing
information on temperature,
atmospheric chemistry, net ice accumulation , dust in the atmosphere, vegetative
changes, volcanic history and anthropogenic emissions).
Today we are deeply disturbed by a global warming trend which has produced a
2-3 degree increase during the past century. Imagine that the average temperature
of the planet could change by 5 or even 10 degrees within a period of a few years.
Average annual rainfall could double or triple from year to year, or disappear
altogether. It seems to be a no-brainer that it would be difficult to develop
agriculture under those conditions.
Many scientists now believe that the current situation, where although localized
weather is variable and notoriously hard to predict, the global climate is relatively
stable from year to year, is a historical anomaly on the planetary timeline,
and could conceivably end on short notice, especially as we humans keep messing
around with the planet’s thermostat.
According to Dr
Tas van Ommen, who is attached to the Antarctic Co-operative
Research Centre at the University of Tasmania "Since the end of the Ice Age,
climate has been relatively stable, but the rapid changes that we are looking
at are a warning that it has not always been this way. The stability of the present
climate might actually be quite sensitive to any changes forced upon it."
Dr van Ommen further noted, "Some computer models suggest that the greenhouse
effect may cause instability and possible abrupt changes in the future – a compelling
reason to learn
as much as possible."
So what would happen if this idyllic moment in planetary climatology were to
end, and the more common extreme weather variability were to return? I don’t
think it would mean the extinction of the human race after all, we have survived
ice ages already. On the other hand, it would certainly cause a collapse of world
agriculture and food production, widespread starvation, panic, riots and epidemics.
Probably only 90% of the world’s population would die.
But with our vast and sophisticated scientific knowledge, pockets of well-prepared
or paranoid people would engineer a way to adapt. Perhaps subsisting on canned
tuna and Ramen noodles until they construct secret underground greenhouses and
protect their stash against the starving hordes, they would attempt to preserve
man’s technological achievements and civilization in the face of Nature’s dismissive
But that remains to be seen. In the meantime, I am satisfied that I have solved
the mystery of why agriculture sprang up around the globe around 10,000 years
ago – just when the planet’s climate stabilized.