Was the Agricultural Revolution a mistake?

They were neither agrarian nor hunter-gatherer, but a mixture of the two. Hunting and foraging supplied a good part of their diet, and farming was in the form of small-scale gardens.

This is fascinating. Do you have any sources where I can read more about this?

The Dawn of Everything has a whole long chapter about the cultures of the Pacific northwest coast.

When Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera in 1492, these lands were home to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of inhabitants.

They were foragers, but about as different from the Hadza, Mbuti or !Kung as one can imagine. Living in an unusually bounteous environment, often occupying villages year-round, the indigenous peoples of California, for example, were notorious for their industry and, in many cases, near-obsession with the accumulation of wealth.

Aside: Graeber & Wengrow have these delightful sub-section headings all through their book, such as:

In which we apply Mauss’s insight to the Pacific Coast and consider why Walter Goldschmidt’s description of aboriginal Californians as ‘Protestant foragers’, while in many ways absurd, still has something to tell us


There have been a lot of salient points in this thread, and I’ll just add a more general one of asking: what do we mean by “mistake”?

I mean, if we’re defining a mistake as anything that is costly for a time, even if it brings benefits later on, then just about everything humans do is a mistake.

Having a child is a mistake.
The space program has definitely been a mistake, even if we’re trekking around having close encounters of the fourth kind with sexy green aliens someday (Or: exploring the universe. Potato, tomato)

It’s a weird framing, that’s all. We normally do it the opposite way round: consider whether something was a mistake on the basis of the longer term benefits and harm.

Ignorance fought, thank you.

If it isn’t right to call it the “Agricultural Revolution” since it lasted thousands of years…

And if it isn’t right to call it the “Agricultural Evolution” if people went back and forth between hunting, using wild plants, using more planned agriculture, being nomadic and formal planting over a long period, even though it trends towards permanent settlements over time…

Is there a better name for increasing farming? Or should one just focus on towns and cities?

The “Grains and Brains Gains”? :wink:

I’m going to try a second time. This is false. The number of people who can, on average, be supported by a plot of land depends on how much food is produced. But the chance that any one of those people might starve to death depends on how much the food supply fluctuates. With a steady food supply, people can and do control their population. Slender women are less fertile. Nursing women are less fertile. Newborn babies are abandoned if they can’t be fed. Herbal abortifacients seem to be an old technology. I bet early humans also engaged in sexual activity that doesn’t make babies, too.

But if the food supply suddenly drops, people starve. If the population density is high, lots of people starve. Food fluctuations are common in agricultural societies. They happen when a drought or a flood wipes out an important crop. Or when an epidemic wipes out an important food animal. The more diverse a population’s food supply, the less subject they are to famine, because they have fewer eggs in one basket. And this is true at any overall population level.

But these people could always go back to foraging. The ag WAS adding to their diversity. The wild lands were still there.

It’s implied here that wild food sources are always abundant and readily available. The same conditions that can affect ag also can happen in nature. Wild game can be depleted by drought, famine, disease, other predators. If the wild state is so Edenic, why didn’t societies simply grow fat and prosperous off of it?

I’m calling it the Farming Flip Flop.

I didn’t say that non agricultural societies are immune from famine. I just said that agriculture that increases the population density doesn’t do it by “reducing the risk your child will die of famine.”

But, in fact, if the population has grown you can’t “go back to foraging”, as a lot of the best land has been converted to farmland, and the population is now larger than what the land supported by foraging, anyway.

Yes and no. Some types of farming, yes, absolutely. But as it gets more intensive, it becomes harder to flex back and forth. A lot of forager behavior is based on seasonal rounds and lots of institutional knowledge. So while a hybrid system is stable and allows a society to fluctuate in response to environmental changes, once you go “all in” on farming, swapping back is much more disruptive.

Were they? As @puzzlegal says, those lands which had been thickly settled would no longer be wild. Adjacent wild land may have been poor hunting and foraging ground to start with. Or it may have been occupied by others who would object. Or, if there were other agricultural communities in the area, there may have been, not adjacent wild land, but adjacent land full of other starving people.

Of course, if the premise is that people sometimes took up farming and then gave it up and switched to hunting and gathering again, then sometimes they did go back to foraging. But, again as puzzlegal says, if their population had risen over what that could sustain, only some of them would survive the change.

Most of what I was going to say about the chances of starvation has already been said quite well by puzzlegal. But I’ll add that the larger population concentration also increases the individual’s chances of dying of disease.

None of that remotely suggests that the statement is false. Ultimately, regardless of the rate and fluctuations it happens, if a change in food production production results in a larger population that brought about by less people starving.

If you are really making the claim that changes in fertility due to nutrition is the primary factor that’s is a pretty remarkable claim that will need some remarkable evidence. Especially as the amount of malnutrition required to seriously effect fertility will also seriously effect mortality (“dying of starvation” is an over simplification of course, it actually means being so malnourished you become far more susceptible to disease)

Nom-agriculturalists control their fertility a variety of ways, including infanticide, abstinence/taboos about sex, extended nursing, and abortifactants. I don’t think anyone regularly had kids starve to death. They avoided having them.

You’re assuming that people are not intelligent agents making rational decisions. People won’t mindlessly continue to have more children and let the surplus starve.

If there’s more food available, they will decide that they can support and raise more children. If there isn’t much of a surplus, they will decide that it’s not such a good idea to have more children.

Also, children are more of an economic asset to farmers (cheap labor) than to most other communities. So farmers choose to have more kids.

And I’m willing to bet that people have engaged in sexual activities that don’t make babies since people have been people.

And then you have a larger population; so if there’s a food shortage, then more people will starve.

I’m also dubious about the too-thin-to-get-pregnant theory, in particular as malnutrition seems to have been more common among settled agriculturalists. But there are a number of factors that keep fertility down in populations. Long nursing times reduce fertility. Taboos on sexual activity at certain times can reduce fertility. (They can also increase it, as the Biblical ones do, depending on the timing of the taboos. Note that the Biblical requirements were written for a population that had probably recently become agricultural.) We don’t in most cases know what other methods were used, but some barrier methods were certainly possible, and some herbal methods may have worked – neither needed to work perfectly, only to reduce the number of pregnancies. Infants who couldn’t easily be fed or carried were probably abandoned, though I suppose that might be classed as a death from starvation; but some settled agricultural societies also used infant exposure.

People who moved frequently probably didn’t want too many babies for that reason, either. Women in late pregnancy may find it difficult to travel, and babies and small children need to be carried. A group can afford to assist some of its members, but having too many needing assistance at once could endanger the whole group.

Earlier, if our close relatives like chimps and bonobos are anything to go on. I’d guess things like oral sex predate the genus Homo (and perhaps even predate the most recent common ancestor of Homo and Pan).

The only non-agricultural people I know much of anything about, the tribes of California (there were hundreds of them), practiced birth control through an elaborate system of taboos, in which sex was forbidden a whole lot of the time – before hunting, at certain times of the month, etc. They also had abortifacients and possibly birth control.

Unlike agricultural societies, where labor is continuous and arduous but the harvest is typically large, hunter/gatherer societies didn’t need a lot of hands, so children were as much a liability as not. They were a burden to transport – tribes usually have a kind of dedicated seasonal circuit from one ripening food source to the next. Because this way of life is delicately balanced within the ecosystem, a lot more than replacement numbers of children are dangerous.