The transition to agriculture is perhaps the most pervasive change in human history. The agricultural revolution allowed mankind to settle down, to grow in number and to develop various crafts that were not directly related to the collection of food. This in turn led to the rise of cities and states that could effectively rule millions of people. Because the sedentary agricultural people had many advantages over the nomadic hunter-gatherers, their way of life came to dominate the world. From 9000 BC onward, farming spread slowly and steadily across the world. However, the agricultural revolution was not always a smooth one-way process, as this research by Gulio Lucarini illustrates. In fact, the benefits of agriculture were not always as obvious as they appear to us now and in some regions the agricultural revolution even met with resistance.
The case of Haua Fteah
Haua Fteah, a cave in northern Libya with traces of human habitation dating back to 80.000 before present, has been a gold mine to archaeologists ever since the first excavations in the 1950s. One of the most recent research projects at Haua Fteah, the ARGINA project led by Cambridge archaeologist Gulio Lucarini, has focused on the plant remains on grinding stones dating to the period between 8000 and 5500 BC. According to their finds, the people living at Haua Fteah during the Neolithic continued to use wild plants as their main food source, even though these people must have been aware of the existence of domesticated grains. Their location close to the Mediterranean coast makes it likely that they maintained contacts with Egypt through coastal trade, where agriculture had been the main livelihood since 6000 BC. Still, the inhabitants of Haua Fteah did not make the transition to an agricultural way of life. What could have been the reason for this?
The drawbacks of agriculture
The percieved ‘conservatism’ of the people at Haua Fteah may be surprising to those who see the development from hunting and gathering to agriculture as a logical step in the progress of civilization. This unilinear approach to the development of civilization, however, is highly problematic. In fact, the agricultural way of life had many drawbacks that may have made it unappealing to the hunter-gatherers.
Man as a hunter-gatherer
In order to fully understand the significance of the shift towards agriculture, we must first realize that man has been a nomadic hunter-gatherer for hundreds of thousands of years. Our brains and bodies have evolved to suit this lifestyle. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle appears to have been healthy as well. It took only a few hours of ‘work’ a day to gain enough food to survive and this ‘work’ consisted mostly of physical excercise. Furthermore, in case of ecological disasters these nomads could easily pack their bags and move on. Humanity has survived as a species of hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years and they did not really need another means of livelihood.
The invention of farming
The invention of farming has long been viewed as a brilliant discovery that made civilization as we know it possible. Although this might be true, it is highly doubtful that early Neolithic man percieved it that way. In fact, the knowledge that plants grew from seeds may well have been available to humanity for thousands of years before the agricultural revolution. Still, humanity did not apply this knowledge on a large scale until around 9000 BC. The beginning of the agricultural revolution appears to coincide with the end of the Last Ice Age. The end of this cold period led to an increase in temperature and rainfall throughout the Near East. Wild grains and fruits grew abundantly and the herds of wild animals increased in size. The hunter-gatherers who lived in this area had so many food sources at their disposal, that they could settle down. Human population increased and life expectancies increased. Around 10.000 BC, however, a colder and dryer period ensued, known as the Younger Dryas. Many crops died off and herds of wild animals decreased in size again. This left the now relatively large human population of the Near East without adequate means of livelihood. In order to make sure that everyone had enough, man decided to manage their environment by planting some of the grains they had gathered and herding and breeding wild animals instead of killing them right away. One could see it as an early form of recycling.
Man as a farmer
Although agriculture has had many benefits, including the possibility to settle down, to expand in number and to manage resources better, early agriculture had many drawbacks. In fact, agriculture required more work than hunting and gathering. It required man to plow, to seed and to harvest and to thresh the grain. Much of this work was literally back-breaking. Human physiology was not adapted to this kind of work and many skeletons of early agriculturalist are deformed because of this hard labor. Moreover, with agriculture it took months to grow the foods you needed and something as small as bad weather might ruin entire harvests, leading to famines. The stored grain also attracted mice and rats, along with their flees and lice who spread disease.
Back to Haua Pteah
Taking these drawbacks into account, it is easy to see why some hunter-gatherers decided to persist in their lifestyle. Transitioning to agriculture meant making a very risky long term investment that had very few short term benefits. In this light, there is nothing unusual about the finds at Haua Pteah, although it is a great example to illustrate my point. Now that I have highlighted the drawback of agriculture you might wonder why agriculture ever became a succes at all. The most likely explanation is that agricultural societies, after a lot of experimentation, developed a new kind of society in which hundreds or even thousands of people could take part. These new societies also had a more complex division of labor, with many people dedicating themselves to crafts other than farming. These larger societies with a complex division of labor succeeded in managing the environment in an adequate way, thus overcoming many of the drawbacks of early agriculture.
If you want to know more about the origin and early history of agriculture I would recommend Cohen’s The Food Crisis in Prehistory (1977) and Health and the Rise of Civilization (1989). These books address the climatological aspects and the initial drawbacks of the agricultural revolution in great detail.