4.III: Agriculture

ancient agriculture Neolithic revolution population density wealth power domestication
The dedication of land to crops was one of the greatest human revolutions of all time. It was accompanied by the domestication of animals, and it permitted people to live together in “unnaturally” large populations for the first time. 1

A. Domestication of Plants and Animals

B. Population Density

C. Wealth and Power

D. Language Families and the Proto-Indo-Europeans

E. Citations

A. Domestication of Plants and Animals

The domestication of plants and animals is universally recognized as one of the most profound turns of events in human history.  Millennia ago, Jewish scripture taught reverently that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” 2 Today’s scientists are not nearly so florid, but we still describe domestication as the agricultural (or Neolithic) revolution.   

Domestication arose out of cultivation; the boundary is fuzzy.  The term domestication suggests human involvement in the reproductive cycle, in a conscious effort to raise organisms that are suited to human needs.  Because humans breed for their favorite traits, most domesticated species eventually evolve into forms not quite found in nature.  All breeds of house dog, for example, evolved from the wolf.  The role that humans now play in guiding evolution is termed artificial selection.  In other words, farmers have been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years!    

The advantages to our species hardly need stating.  Domestic plants and animals provided food and drugs, clothing and other materials, transport, muscle power, and military assistance.  By making crops and livestock immediately available, the first farmers made their own lives drastically more efficient.  The sacrifice was an imbalance of nature.  Agriculture is characterized by isolating crops so that each plot of land supports only one plant type.  This simplified ecosystems and reduced nutritional diversity in the human diet. 3 Clearing out fields often required deforestation.  Some organisms have become so domesticated that they can no longer survive without human care and breeding. 4 Corn, cannabis, silkworms, and some aquarium fish are prime examples.  

Fertile Crescent Egypt Mesopotamia cradle agriculture civilization
Not all historians include Egypt in the Fertile Crescent. I do because this was all one continuous region both geographically and culturally. 5

The first agriculture appeared early in the Holocene Epoch, 10 – 12 TYA.  The revolution was not immediately global, but occurred independently in just a few localities.  The Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to Syria to Iran, was the world’s most influential cradle of agriculture.  It was not only the first but also the largest and most diverse, and it was situated in a critically central location.  Resources available here included wheat, flax and legumes, sheep and goats, pigs, cattle, and cats. 1 6 Today’s “European” cattle may all descend from a small herd of about 100 oxen domesticated in the Neolithic Fertile Crescent.

Only three other spots on Earth are undisputed cradles of agriculture.  Paleo-Chinese cultures farmed along the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys.  They domesticated wheat, millet, rice, soy, dogs, chickens, and pigs.  Silk was a uniquely Chinese resource, harvested from silkworms.  Meanwhile, agriculture appeared in Mexico and the Andes of Peru.  Mesoamerican farmers are renowned for creating corn from wild teosinte, a grass whose “ears” look like hard tufts of wheat. 7 The Andeans bred potatoes from a small, toxic wild ancestor. 8

Agriculture propagated outward from the Old-World centers at a rate of about 1 kilometer per year. 9 The agriculture of the Fertile Crescent expanded northwest into Europe and east to India.  Chinese influence spread southward and eastward, from Japan to New Guinea.  North-south spread was more problematic than east-west, because crops are sensitive to latitude.  This consideration, as well as other geographical barriers, presented challenges in America and Africa. 10 Agriculture did not reach Australia until the 2nd millennium.

Plant domestication intensified the production of drugs as well as food.  Beer and wine are almost as ancient as domesticated grains and fruit.  American sites show traces of coca leaves and hallucinogenic cacti and beans dating as far back as 11 TYA. 11 Poppy, the natural source of opiates, was domesticated in the Mediterranean region before 7 TYA. 12 Asian farmers later bred marijuana for its high THC content. 13

B. Population Density

Agricultural people lived a radically different lifestyle from their hunter-gatherer forebears.  The most immediate consequence of agriculture was a concentration of people into higher population densities.  This is not only because farmers stopped wandering and settled down in one spot.  It’s also because they were able to feed greater numbers.  They even harvested more food than they could eat all at once and had to store or trade surpluses. 

Another consequence of food surplus was that not everyone had to spend all their time feeding themselves.  While most people continued to farm at least part-time, some were free to specialize in the crafts, trades, and services that made town life possible.  Some specialists made pottery and baskets for carrying food and water.  Others built structures.  The oldest known city in the world, Jericho, had houses and defensive walls 10,000 years ago.  Other buildings included granaries and temples.  They were made of stones and semi-permanent substances like tar, plaster, and wood.  Some settlements even started to use elementary metals such as gold, silver, 14 and copper 15 as early as 5000 BCE.  These are all emergent properties of population density – things that people can do only when they live together in communities.            

The oldest towns in the world, 5 – 10 TYA, dotted Eurasia from Ireland to China.  They typically covered about 10 – 30 acres and supported a few thousand inhabitants.  Other than Jericho, the oldest and best-known sites are in Turkey.  Catal Hoyuk was an egalitarian complex of plaster houses decorated with interior murals and bull horns.  Göbekli Tepe was the site of impressive temples. 

With the first dense human settlements came the first epidemics.  Deadly diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and flu are closely related to variants in animals.  These pathogens likely jumped from domesticated animals (including self-domesticated rodents) to humans and then evolved to human form. 16 Epidemics had never been possible when people lived in small bands.  Now that they lived in close quarters, humans became much better vectors for spreading these diseases.  Smallpox in particular has been the human species’ most prolific killer of all time, 17 with a cumulative death toll on the order of a billion! 18 Over time, of course, some people developed better immune responses and survived epidemics to pass their resilient genes on to their children.  Native Americans and Australians never encountered these diseases until Europeans suddenly introduced them last millennium.  With no immunity, these populations were especially vulnerable, and their numbers were decimated quickly after European contact. 19

C. Wealth and Power

It was in the middle Neolithic period, around 5 – 10 TYA, that some communities started transforming into non-egalitarian, rank-based societies.  While most people still struggled to survive, a tiny proportion became wealthy and powerful.

Wealth is an accumulation of private property.  The concept of personal property arose in the first villages with houses, granaries, bounded fields, and livestock. 20 Food was the essential resource.  A family that was able to accumulate herds of cattle and stores of grains had advantages and bargaining power over others who had less.   

At the same time, growing population centers faced new needs.  They required law and order, defense, diplomacy, and trade with neighboring villages.  It seems that the most practical solution to redistribute wealth for public spending was through a central leader, a chief, who would collect tributes or taxes from the villagers. 

The chiefdom was a polity intermediate between the egalitarian tribe and the full-blown kingdom.  Every ancient state grew out of a preliminary chiefdom phase. 21 Unlike the smaller and more ancient tribes, in chiefdoms leadership was permanently vested in one nuclear family.  Hereditary title provided stability by preventing uncertainty about who was in charge.  Primogeniture kept the ruling family from diffusing over the generations.  A chief and his clan ruled over one village or a few satellite villages.  As the chiefdom grew, so did the leader’s inner circle.  Eventually, even the government got too large for everyone to know everyone, and at this point it was growing into a state.

Since the mid-Neolithic, then, there have been four means to exert influence in human affairs:  positions of authority, wealth, arms, and organized numbers.  Concentration of wealth and arms empowered rulers to resist the numbers that may have organized against them.  On the other hand, the wealthy did not become solely exploitative but also assumed the burdens of leadership.  A scion relies on his base, and he will maintain it best when he defends his realm and manages a healthy economy.  These considerations help align his interests somewhat with those of his subjects.  Power and leadership did not necessarily have to evolve together, but they invariably did.  This would indicate that integrating privilege and responsibility in the same ruling class offered strong survival advantages for the cultures that did so.  

How did the first chiefs earn their titles?  In the cultures that have been observed making a transition from egalitarian tribes to ranked chiefdoms, preeminence usually had a basis in historic seniority: “We were here first” or “We descend from the senior lineage.” 22 Without written records, these claims were often based on flimsy evidence, and it was easy to revise history or religion. 23 When the people accepted a chief, they regarded him as imbued with sacred power, making his authority unquestionable.  Some chiefs were even exalted as gods. 24 The chief was in charge of the community’s religion.  Myths and rituals reinforced his rank. 

On the opposite end of the power spectrum, slavery also dates to the first chiefdoms.  The need for slaves only came about when agriculture created a demand for labor.  Slaves were usually “outsiders” but could also be criminals or even lost-cause debtors.  Rulers valued slave labor so highly that they often raided neighboring villages for them.  Most villagers had a rank somewhere between chief and slave.  Social status was determined not strictly by birthright but also skill set, especially military prowess. 25

D. Language Families and the Proto-Indo-Europeans

Starting about 5 – 6 TYA, pre-historians are able to supplement their archaeological and genetic evidence with linguistic analysis.  Grossly speaking, languages have phylogenies much like species.  As the speakers of a language become diffuse and isolated, their dialects “speciate” into distinct but related languages.  By studying similarities in words and grammar, linguists are able to trace today’s large language families to their theoretical ancestral mother tongues.  There are thousands of languages today, as there surely were in the Neolithic.  However, most living languages are classified into fewer than ten major language families.  This suggests that most Neolithic languages are now extinct, while about ten of them were successful enough to spread throughout the world.  These dominant proto languages were largely associated with successful farming / ranching cultures, which had much greater capacity for large-scale influence than hunter-gatherer societies. 26

There is more than one way to measure the size or success of a language family.  There are over 1,000 living languages in the Niger-Congo family, all concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. The proto-Niger-Congo language originated with yam farmers in western Africa. 27 The continent’s lingering diversity reflects the fact that sub-Saharan Africa was never subsumed by a major empire.  A billion people speak the world’s largest single language, Mandarin, or a closely related tongue.  This Sino-Tibetan family can be traced back 6,000 years to the eastern Himalayas, 28 and its spread was associated with millet agriculture. 29 Other major language families include Afro-Asiatic (Arabic and its relatives) and Austronesian, which spread from Taiwan to all the South Pacific islands in the last 5,000 years. 

As measured by the number of speakers, number of countries, or land area, the Indo-European language family is by far the largest.  It is also the most widely studied, as it was the first language family to be recognized. 30 As its name suggests, this family was already spread far and wide before globalization, from Western Europe to India.  The number of languages in this family is now relatively small, only about 100, due to persistent contact among Eurasians.  They include English, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, and French – seven of today’s ten most populous languages. 31

This is a diverse spectrum of languages, yet the fact that they share many similar words and grammatical conventions indicates that they share a common origin.  For instance, the word for field is agros in Greek, ager in Latin, akrs in Gothic (an extinct Germanic language), and ajras in Sanskrit (an Indian language). With knowledge of how sounds change from one language to another, we can reconstruct the theoretical original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *agras 2 the original root of our words agriculture and acre. 32

Today’s best evidence indicates that the PIE occupied the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, present-day Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, in the 5th to 3rd millennia BCE. 33 They probably coincided with what archaeologists call the Yamna or pit-grave culture. 34 Language and architecture tell us that the PIEs were pastoralists with a few crops, that they worshipped a sky god and made animal sacrifices, domesticated horses and honeybees, and organized themselves into patrilineal chiefdoms. 35

Proto Indo European homeland
The dark green region is the likeliest PIE homeland. Light green shows the extent of overland Indo-European expansion (which goes beyond this map). Indo-European languages are co-dominant with other language families in cross-hatched regions. 36

The successful spread of the Indo-Europeans may have involved some military force but was probably by-and-large a gradual cultural diffusion. 37 PIE culture introduced some extremely valuable goods and resources.  The earliest evidence for domestication of the horse is traced to Kazakhstan about 6 TYA, two millennia before the rest of Europe. 38 Some of the oldest bronze artifacts and wheeled vehicles are also traced to this place and time.

The PIEs’ language and legends may have survived well because of their penchant for poetry.  The saga of the first three men, *Manu, *Yemo, and *Trito, was an important part of PIE heritage.  After an evil serpent stole their cattle, these men solicited help from the gods to slay the serpent and reclaim the cattle.  The men were so grateful that they sacrificed a share to the gods, and so the cycle of giving continued.  This narrative justified the significance of sacrifice and the priests who performed it – a predominant theme in early organized religion. 39

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Continue to Section 4.IV:  Civilization

E. Citations

  1. Cover image in the public domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Primitive_plow.jpg (accessed and saved 12/25/17).
  2. Genesis 1:26, King James Bible
  3. George Armelagos, “Brain Evolution, the Determinates of Food Choice, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition vol 54, issue 10, pp. 1330 – 1341 (2/24/2014), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2011.635817 (accessed and saved 1/20/20).
  4. Kyle Chamberlain, “The Domestication Spectrum: How Our Relationships with Plants and Animals Define Our Existence”, Permaculture Research Institute, 3/04/2010, https://permaculturenews.org/2010/03/04/the-domestication-spectrum-how-our-relationships-with-plants-and-animals-define-our-existence/ (accessed and saved 8/13/2017, archived 1/20/20).  Non-academic; a good plain-English read.
  5. Fertile Crescent map by User:NormanEinstein / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fertile_Crescent_map.png (accessed and saved 10/22/17).
  6. Claudio Ottoni et al., “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world”, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, article no. 0139 (2017), https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0139 (accessed and saved 8/5/17).
  7. Yoshihiro Matsuoka et al., “A single domestication for maize shown by multilocus microsatellite genotyping”, PNAS vol. 99 no. 9 (4/30/2002),  http://www.pnas.org/content/99/9/6080.long (accessed and saved 8/05/17).
  8. Donald Ugent, Shelia Pozorski, and Thomas Pozorski, “Archaeological potato tuber remains from the Casma Valley of Peru”, Economic Botany 36:182-192 (Apr., 1982), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02858715 (accessed 1/20/20).
  9. Christopher Seddon, Humans: from the beginning, Glanville Publications (2014), p. 226.
  10. This is one of the central theses in Jared Diamond’s popular-science account Guns, Germs, and Steel, W.W. Norton, 1997.
  11. Elisa Guerra-Doce, “Psychoactive Substances in Prehistoric Times: Examining the Archaeological Evidence”, Time and Mind 8(1):91-112 (1/02/2015), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1751696X.2014.993244 (accessed and saved 1/20/20).
  12. Ferran Antolin and Ramon Buxo, “Chasing the traces of diffusion of agriculture during the early Neolithic in the western Mediterranean coast”, Rubricatum: revista del Museu de Gavà (en línia), 2012, Núm. 5 , pp. 95-102. http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Rubricatum/article/view/269300/356849 (accessed and saved 8/13/2017).
  13. Bakel et al., “The draft genome and transcriptome of Cannabis sativa”, Genome Biology 2011, 12:R102, https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2011-12-10-r102 (accessed and saved 8/13/2017).
  14. Alfred Lucas and J. Harris, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, Dover Publications (1926, 4ed 2012), p. 41 (accessed and saved 8/27/2017).
  15. Miljana Radivojevic et al., “On the origins of extractive metallurgy: new evidence from Europe”, Journal of Archaeological Science 37(11):2775-87 (Nov., 2010), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440310001986 (accessed and saved 8/27/17).
  16. Aidan Cockburn, “Where did our infectious diseases come from?” CIBA Foundation Symposium no. 49 (Wiley, 1977), p. 111 (accessed and saved 8/27/2017).  For a more detailed smallpox study, see Yu Li et al., “On the origin of smallpox: Correlating variola phylogenics with historical smallpox records”, PNAS 104(40):15787-92 (8/15/2007), http://www.pnas.org/content/104/40/15787.full (accessed and saved 8/27/2017).
  17. Nicolau Barquet and Pere Domingo, “Smallpox: the triumph over the most terrible of the ministers of death”, Annals of Internal Medicine 127:635-42 (10/15/1997), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9341063 (accessed and saved 1/23/20).
  18. The estimate of 300 – 500 million deaths in the 20th century is commonly quoted, though I have not yet traced this figure to its source.
  19. America: Lois Magner, “The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans”, Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery (2001).  http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/impact-european-diseases-native-americans (accessed and saved 8/27/2017, archived 1/23/20).  Australia: Judy Campbell, “Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780 – 1880”, Melbourne University Press (Carlton, 2007).
  20. National Center for History in the Schools, “Key Theme Four: Haves and Have-Nots”, http://worldhistoryforusall.ss.ucla.edu/themes/keytheme4.php (accessed and saved 9/10/2017, archived 1/23/20).
  21. Robert Wright, “The Age of Chiefdoms”, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Pantheon Books, 2000), Chapter 7, https://web.archive.org/web/20190401141650/http://www.nonzero.org/chap7.htm (accessed and saved 1/23/20).
  22. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality:  How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire , Harvard University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2012).  Flannery and Marcus use the phrase “We were here first” six times in this book, and “senior lineage” seven times.
  23. Flannery and Marcus (ibid.) cite numerous examples of tribes or chiefdoms revising their creation stories to justify changing social relations.  One such example is taken from M.J. Meggitt, Desert People:  A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962) wherein the Walbiri creation myth explained the godly source of “sections”, a sociological structure that they had only been using since 1850.
  24. Examples are given by Brij Lal and Kate Fortune in The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 , University of Hawaii Press (2000), p. 135. https://books.google.com/books?id=T5pPpJl8E5wC&pg=PA135#v=onepage&q&f=false  (Accessed and saved 1/23/20).
  25. Irving Goldman, Ancient Polynesian Society, University of Chicago Press (1970).
  26. Colin Renfrew and Peter Bellwood, editors, Examining the Farming / Language Dispersal Hypothesis, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (2002). Summarized by Jared Diamond and Peter Bellwood, “Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions”, Science 300(5619):597-603 (4/25/2003), http://science.sciencemag.org/content/300/5619/597.long (accessed and saved 9/23/2017).
  27. Jared Diamond and Peter Bellwood, “Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions”, Science 300(5619):597-603 (4/25/2003), http://science.sciencemag.org/content/300/5619/597.long (accessed and saved 9/23/2017).
  28. UC Berkeley STEDT team, “The Sino-Tibetan Language Family”, Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (c. 2017), https://stedt.berkeley.edu/about-st#homeland (accessed and saved 12/17/2017, archived 1/24/20).
  29. E. N. Anderson, Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, University of Pennsylvania Press (2014), p. 22, https://books.google.com/books?id=LJRuBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA22 (accessed and saved 9/24/2017).
  30. Frederick J. Newmeyer, “The History of Modern Linguistics”, Linguistic Society of America (2012),     https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/history-modern-linguistics (accessed and saved 9/24/2017).
  31. Native speaker statistics:  Gary F. Simons and Charles D. Fennig (eds.), Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 20ed, SIL International (Dallas, 2017),  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size (accessed and saved 9/30/2017).  Second-language statistics:  Apparently also from Ethnologue (a pay site), summarized on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers (accessed and saved 9/30/2017, archived 1/24/20). 
  32. August Schleicher (1821 – 1868), summarized by J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth, Thames and Hudson (London, 1989), pp. 14 – 16.
  33. Marija Gimbutas, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe. Part I: Mesolithic, Neolithic and Copper Age Cultures in Russia and the Baltic Area, Peabody Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1956).  As summarized and updated by David Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press (Kindle ebook edition, 2007). 
  34. Wolfgang Haak et al., “Massive Migration from the Steppe Was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe”, Nature 522:207-11 (3/02/2015), https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14317 (accessed and saved 1/12/20).
  35. Mallory (1989) and Anthony (2007) both discuss these points.
  36. PIE map by Joe Roe / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indo-European_steppe_homeland_map.svg (accessed and saved 9/24/17).
  37. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, Princeton University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2007), location 6159 (Ch. 14 conclusion).
  38. Alan Outram et al., “The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking”, Science 323(5919):1332-1335 (3/06/2009), https://science.sciencemag.org/content/323/5919/1332 (accessed and saved 1/24/20).
  39. J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Thames & Hudson (London, 1989), pp. 137 – 138.
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