Why did humans get into the agriculture business

According to a lot of thing I have read and watched, humans were doing pretty well as hunter/gatherers at the beginning of the Neolithic. They had to work about 30 hours a week, had extensive knowledge of how to get food, had a well balanced diet and didn’t have to deal with the diseases that passed to humans with the rise of animal husbandry. Then we started farming and settled into a life of drudgery so bad we had to invent slavery and war. What was the advantage? Was it just a sort of arms race wherein a farming culture had a military advantage over a hunter/gatherer culture and so forced out the latter? Did the culture work so well for the powerful that they forced their unders to deal with it?

I personally think there must have been a profound advantage in terms of food security, but what do I know?


I think that’s a lot of it. Look how long nomadic hunter/gatherer/herding cultures existed near farming cultures without adopting their ways; it doesn’t seem to have been a very tempting lifestyle change to the people who actually lived back then.

You can stay put. No more nomadic following of the herd. Staying put allows for permanent shelters which improves the quality of life generally. You have scads of downtime depending on your role in the community. Downtime is all we need to tinker, invent, improve, and produce art. Crops provide feed for all types of domesticated animals, which provide years of dairy, eggs, wool, furs, leather, meat, etc. The community is more permanent. The old and sick had a better chance of being cared for instead of potentially bring left behind. The division of labor and free time allows for specialists which eventually leads to career soldiers and armies to ensure the well-being of your people.

for HGs, net available food varies wildly, in several ways:

Seasonal variation - there are lean periods in the year - and whilst you can store surplus of foraged foods, it’s more efficient to store farmed grains, root vegetables and penned, fattened animals - especially if they’re already on your doorstep.

Year-on-year variation - some years, the snozzberries are abundant, other years, there are almost none. Agriculture is a way of exerting more control on the harvest.

Long-term variation - populations of predators and prey (where the prey also happens to be human food - say, rabbits or deer) tend to fluctuate over the course of many years, driven in a feedback loop (lots of rabbits makes the foxes successful, which boosts the fox population, which reduces the rabbit population, which means the foxes are less successful, which means the rabbits can increase, etc) - farming food animals in protective captivity controls this variable, somewhat at least.

Eventually, digital watches.

Never, as far as we can tell.

The only places where HGs existed along agriculturalists for a prolonged period of time were in places where the land couldn’t support agriculture. IOW, only people who couldn’t practice agriculture didn’t practice, and everyone who did practice agriculture did practice agriculture.

Quite the opposite. Both the oral and written history is full of stories of HGs essentially begging to be allowed to partake of the agricultural lifestyle. This is perhaps most well attested to and fully described in the case of Australian Aborigines, where HGs travelled literally hundreds of miles to any site of agricultaralist dwellings within their range. Within two or three generations no HGs wanted to practice agriculture.

It’s amazing how a well-researched anthropological observation gets bastardised over the years.

This started out as “HGs spend on average 4 hours/day *obtaining *food.” The figure expressly did not include time spent traveling between hunting grounds, cooking and preparing food, making tools to dig with etc. It certainly did not include any work aside from that associated with food, such as making shelters, religious rituals, tending wounds, rearing children etc.

Then it was corrupted to “HGs can feed themselves in just 35 hours a week”, which isn’t accurate.

And now apparently the latest form is “HGS only had to work 30 hours a week”. That is just flat out wrong. All the figures I’ve seen suggest that HGs worked an average of 35-60 hours/week, but the hours were highly variable.

Sort of. Certainly far less extensive than the knowledge of agriculturalists living in the same area. In most cases less extensive than the knowledge of agriculturalists from *other *areas.

The mistake you are making is thinking that a person is either a HG or an agriculturalist, and that one morning a group of people all decide to become agriculturalists, throw away their spears and digging sticks and start planting seeds.

Of course the truth is nothing like that. The transition was incredibly slow for tribes, and erratic within tribes. Early HG groups would have practiced at most seasonal agriculture, and spent the rest of the year as HGs. Moreover some individuals within the group would never have become agriculturalists, and I suspect that in many cases the men never adopted agriculture at all, much as was the case amongst most American Indians.

What that meant is that early agriculturalists had a diet that was just as balanced as that of HGs. They were no more prone to disease. They had access to exactly the same food sources. And in addition tot hast they had access to sown food. In short, there was no downside to transitional agriculture, only benefits.

That would have played a role eventually, and was probably the very final factor that spelled the end of the HG lifestyle. But that wasn’t the reason for the original adoption The original adoption was because the life was so much better.

Contrary to the rosy picture of the HG lifestyle that you paint, it was actually a brutal, boring lifestyle. With no capacity for food storage the population had to be regulated at the carrying capacity of the worst year. With no access to contraceptives this could only be achieved by ongoing female infanticide. That results in HGs societies being incredibly violent. Even in the most peaceful HGs societies one in 50 adult males die from homicide. With no food storage capacity, periodic starvation was the norm.

Knowledge in HG societies consisted quote literally of rumour and Chinese whispers. The knowledge base of HGs is extremely poor. Even things you would think that HGS should know they do not, because they have no way of finding out. For example, HGs on the great plains thought that bison emerged magically from caves underground, they had no concept that thy were naturally reproducing beasts or that they could be hunted to extinction. Australian Aborigines had no concept that grass comes from seed. They knew that grass produced seed, they ate the stuff, but they had no idea that grass plants developed from grass seeds. those are only two examples, but it highlights how crappy a knowledge system is when it relies on rumour.

And that applies to all knowledge. Medicine was so crude as to be non-existent. HGs had no means of treating even the most basic diseases or injuries such as food poisoning, embedded, infected splinters or broken long bones. The tool kit consisted of what could be carried or what could be left behind without rottting, burning or being eaten.

The HG lifetsyle was frankly pretty damn horrible, which is why, in areas where HGs are contiguous with agriculturalists, it is the norm for HGs to want to marry into agriculturalist families, but agriculturalists never want to adopt hunting and gathering. Even today, there are plenty pf places where you could become a HG if yuo wished, but we don’t have anybody doing it.

That doesn’t make any sense. HG societies don’t have any “powerful” or any “unders”. There are elders, preists etc, but they can’t tell people what to do.

It was the ability to control food supply and claim land that agriculture allowed that permitted classes of “powerful” and “unders” to develop. IOW the classes were created by the success of agriculture, not the other way around.

Glad you challenged the 30 hours thing, as it sounded flat-out wrong to me, but I wasn’t aware of its provenance.

I dabble with wild food foraging as one of my hobbies and although I’m obviously not as skilled (or indeed committed) as a typical HG might be, it’s often struck me that I spend a whole day foraging for less than a day’s energy requirements - and that’s after I’ve driven to the foraging site in my car, wearing clothes and shoes I bought, etc.

There are exceptions to this (coastal foraging in the intertidal zone can be an easy net gain, for example), but in general, it’s my impression that the typical HG lifestyle is that of only-just-surviving; and what we might consider a minor upset (illness, bad weather, etc) is catastrophic to the HG.

It’s complicated. Slavery and war aren’t a result of agriculture per se. War was certainly around before; we have evidence from Ötzi that some have interpreted as signs of tribal warfare, and the causes of war (competition for limited resources) was certainly a factor before agriculture.

Initially, we’re hunter gatherers, dependent on where the animal herds roam. But when a population grows, collecting enough food is harder and harder. The animals could take you into a biome you have no experience in, and you could lose access to valuable foraging you may depend on.

In areas with more steady access to food, we’re in one place long enough to realize that plants create seeds, and seeds create plants. This leads to primitive “farming” systems where we plant seeds along river banks, and let them grow on their own, until we eventually start doing it on a larger, more professional scale. We’re now less dependent on small fluctuations in the food supply, such as a band of predators moving in, or a higher than average number of young prey animals dying before reaching adulthood.

This in turn allows for larger populations, which leads to obvious military advantages, but only as a side-effect. Really, it just makes the population less susceptible to famine. Death becomes less of a possibility, and it’s much easier to go out and pick corn from a plant along the river than it is to study the habits of, find, stalk, wound, and collect potentially dangerous animals such as wild boar. Hunting is a very, very inefficient way of collecting food - on the best of days, the rates of success vary from 17-31%. And these hunts take multiple days, because the animals aren’t going to stay right next to the village. Meanwhile, collecting that corn is a sure thing. It also allows for specialization of labor - which lets those who cannot hunt or gather for mobility reasons (the elderly, the weak, those with very young children) still contribute effectively to the society as a whole.

So overall, hunting and gathering are just not successful enough to support large populations; they are outcompeted, and die out.

As for slavery, it’s partly an extension of war prizes, but made practical. When Joe Chieftain returns from a war with 30 captives, it’s proof he beat them, and he gets more status as a warrior, and thus politician. But he still has 30 more mouths to feed, so he needs to do something with them. He could kill them there, but there’s always something to do around the village (such as repairing the damage from the war before the other tribe attacks again), and sometimes people don’t want to do it (digging irrigation trenches, cleaning waste). So more often they’re slowly integrated into his society as the generations go on. First as slaves, then as domestic servants, then as low-class peasants with their own lodgings. It evolved into something much more rigid, but that’s a big part of how it developed.

Coastal fishing is gathering, isn’t it?

This reminds me of the local indian tribes in my area (mojave), who practiced something like transhumance based on the seasons. When they were in the valleys, they would grow, and once the prey animals started to leave, it was a sign of the changing seasons and the start or end of harvest. Led to some nifty archaeological deposits - you’d find hunting implements down low, because that’s where they were crafted; and you’d find agricultural remains in the mountains, because they were relying on that food to support them through the hunting season.

IMO: Collecting crabs, whelks, fish from the intertidal zone is gathering. Fishing with lines, spears, nets etc is hunting.

But you can only do it at the coast, obviously.

I think OP raises an important question. While most hunter/gatherers had it very tough, in some important ways their lives were “sweeter” than the tedium of cereal farmers.

This is the key point. There were Europeans that “held out” longer than necessary from adopting agriculture (most notably, in present-day Spain and Germany) but once one group did, the hold-outs were soon outnumbered, so disappeared.

That’s probably not a good reference point for two reasons.

The first is that you are just a part-time, amateur, amateur outsider and these people were full-time professional locals. That makes a huge difference. It would be like comparing the amount of time it takes you to build a house and the amount of time it takes a carpenter. Event though you have the basic knowledge and skills needed to build a house, it would probably take you 400 hours to build one, whereas a decent carpenter will build one one in 80 hours. that’s the difference between a full-time pro and an amateur.

Not only would actual HGs have had far superior knowledge of what to, they would have had an intimate, generations-long knowledge of where to find it, how to find it and the best way of gathering it. I’ve spent some time with Aborigines who were themselves only recreational gatherers, but their skill is astonishing to someone like me who is an enthusiastic amateur. They don’t look for food. They simply go to where they know it is going to be.

The other issue is that the environment you are in is nothing like the environment HGs were in. They altered their environment to maximise available food through burning, clearing, eradicating competitors and so forth. The very presence of Hgs in a landscape dramatically increases the food available to HGs.

Probably not. As noted earlier, HGs took great steps to avoid that by regulating the population at the carrying capacity of the worst season. Since such seasons only occur every 7-20 years, that means means that for at least 6 out of 7 years they would have had a very good buffer between themselves and starvation. That’s borne our by the aracheological and observational evidence. HGs were tall, well built individuals with no sign of prolonged malnutrion in the majority of individuals. Seasonal starvation, in the sense of going a few weeks with a tight belt, was probably universal, but most of the time the food supply would have been well beyond only-just-surviving.

I know it’s counterintuitive, but the opposite seems to have been true. Agriculture seems to have been favoured in areas with highly seasonal food supplies and areas with high contrast between the productive an unproductive zones: the river valleys and dry savannas of the middle east, the swamps and rainforest of China or New Guinea.

Essentially, people preferred to live in the more productive environment, but because they were seasonally uninhabitable they had to occupy a territory that consisted of a little high value and a lot of low value land. The invention of agriculture gave people in such an environment a huge advantage because they could exploit the productive land much longer. In more regular food supplies and uniform landscape, the benefits of agriculture aren’t as keen.

Imagine a HG band in the semi-arid region of the Middle East. It’s territory includes river valleys with lost of game, edible plants and water where they spend the autumn and summer periods. But they can’t spend the whole year there because HGs will soon exploit the plant resources of an area and have to move on. So they spend the winter months wandering through the desert. Now someone realises that if they collect seeds from the savannas and sow them onto the mudflats, they can generate enough food to extend their stay in the river valleys for a month or so. A huge advantage all by itself. The someone else discovers that you can store food, which means that they can live their year-round, and they can just make trips into the desert for meat or whatever else they lack. And all of a sudden you have agricultural villages.

But if you live in an areas with uniform environments, there is little obvious advantage to sowing seeds. Since all the territory is the same, all you gain by sowing seeds is prolonging your stay in an environment that has been depleted of game.

That’s a really good way of putting it.

Not at the time of adoption. At the time of adoption cereal farmers had all the sweet parts of the HG lifestyle, and they had more food as well. There was simply no downside to agriculture at the time of adoption.

The life only stopped being sweet when the population had grown to the point that people had to be full time agriculturalists, when population had increased to the point that land ownership and civic defence became essential and when the landscape had been so over-exploited by the burgeoning population that many wild foods had ceased to be available.

But that took many generations. The first 5-10 generations would have had a much sweeter life than if they had been HGs.

The HG lifestyle is often made out to be exciting and free. They certainly moved about more although I’m not sure that’s out of liberty; agriculturalists had to stay put or starve and HGs had to move or starve. From the descriptions given, it doesn’t seem like they enjoyed much more freedom than agriculturalists or modern industrialists.

Any ideas about the maximum size of their groups? How were they organized, to the extent they were?

That’s pretty much the size of it.

Trying to measure a subjective term like freedom is tricky to say the least. But to me, HGs had much more freedom than, say, a Medieval serf. While they had to work to stay live, they weren’t owned by anyone. If they chose not to work they could, if they chose to fish rather than hunt or they chose to simply wander off into the wilderness for 6 months for some solitude they could, and nobody would think to stop them.

Basically, a HGs freedom was limited mostly by her physical world: need for food, climate, predators etc. and by her choices about her role in society. In contrast a Medieval peasant still had all those obligations and she were constrained by her financial obligations, government, military etc.

So in that sense HGs had a large degree of freedom

There’s really to much diversity to generalise.

At one extreme the people of the Pacific NW lived in permanent towns of 500 or so people and nations tens of thousands with kings, priests, warriors etc. But they were descendants of agriculturalists and practiced limited agriculture. At the other extreme the people of the Kalahari or Australian deserts lived groups of 5-7 within loose clans of maybe 200 people. Any group within that clan might meet 3 or four other groups each year and sopend a few nights together before dispersing. The whole clan who might come together every 10 years or so during an exceptionally good season.

The organisation of the typical Hg band was largely non-existent. The old people were accorded respect because of their knowledge and were listened to, but they had no particular authority. The shamans were a source of advice, but mostly in the sense that a doctor is today: people ask them for advice but nobody is *obliged *to take their doctor’s advice. All teenagers were expected to submit to ritual torture and agree to abide by the traditional rules as part of their initiation if they wanted to live with the group. If they ddn;t they would be expelled from the group and the group territory. Aside from the specific tradition, everyone did what they wanted. If their behaviour offended enough people they could be banished or mutilated as a punishment, but if an individual or a group disagreed with the group consensus, they were free to leave and do it somewhere where nobody could see.

No dispute, however, it remains a fact that many wild foods, even when at maximum availability, and even when collected with craft and cunning, are still not massively energy-positive (but are better than the alternative, if the alternative is starvation or malnutrition).

What was the point/utility of the loose clan of about 200 people?

How did they keep the gene pool from getting a little too cloudy?

You say all teenagers submitted to ritual torture. I can understand why male teenagers would; it can be useful to instill a macho, pain-ain’t-nothin’ ethos among warriors. Military personnel still do that to some extent even in the Canadian and US military. Why female teenagers though?

They were the power base. You needed enough people to be able to defend a territory if the need arose, and that can only be assured through maintaining kinship. While you may not see those people very often, if the neighboring clan started to infringe on your borders you could gather in numbers and drive them off. However if people started regularly marrying outside their clan, they would be just as likely to side with the invaders. So the clan group became a way of ensuring survival the group could maintain territory.

You don’t need a very big gene poo to prevent inbreeding, 100 or so is more than enough. There would also have been some limited genetic introgression from outside the clan due to rape, cheating wives and so forth, and I imagine there would also have been occasional inter-clan marriages. More than enough to keep the gene pool well mixed.

I never really thought about it. The main idea of initiation torture is generally to prove that someone is willing to sacrifice for the good of the group. If someone only has to speak the words then literally anyone can gain membership. If they have to place their life in your hands then you weed out those who are not committed to the group and those who are psychologically incapable of committing. The torture also provides a communal bond of common experience. Those things are at least as important for women as for men.

I suppose the warrior ethos aspect is important, but then in a society where infanticide was routine the same ethos is at least as important for women. It probably takes more courage for a woman to hand over her newborn to be killed for the good of the tribe than it does for a man to face an opponent that he at least has a chance of defeating.

What makes you think Otzi was a HG?