Why did humans start farming?

Here in the American Southwest agriculture existed within ‘hunter gatherer’ societies. During the Archaic (4000 to 12000 years ago) small groups lived sedentary lives around shallow lakes. Large prey like Mammoths were abundant in the marshy shorelines. Agricultural was an integral food source using native plants and products brought north from Mexico. As the late ice age climate continued to warm, the large prey animals died off and the economy slowly shifted toward agriculture.

The process did not involve a decision.


This question has an analogy in the transition from farming to city dwelling after the Industrial Revolution. People can quickly point out the horrors of cities, with their slums, the grinding toil in dangerous factories, the crime, the epidemic diseases and ask why millions left farms.

The answer is that people did so of their own free will because they looked at the two choices and decided that city life was the better of the two. They were already poor. They already lived in horrible conditions. They already worked most of the day. Their kids already died in infancy. They gained a steady source of income. They gained year round food supplies. They gained better housing. They gained a social and community strength from having others in similar conditions with them. They gained the possibility of rising in the world and having their children go to schools and get better jobs. For them a choice that seems to our superficial understanding of the situation a poor one was a rational calculation. Tens of millions of people made this choice and most of them stuck to it. Tens of millions of people waited a little longer until cities got even better and made the choice then. Farm population in western countries dropped from about 95% to about 3% in less than 200 years.

The same must have been true when hunter-gatherers turned to farming under the protection of city-states and then kings. It was a rational calculation to improve their lives. They knew the alternative very well - far better than the OP does.

It’s true that both these world-changing decisions are irreversible. Once the population started climbing there was no going back to foraging for food; that would have led to mass starvation. Our technological civilization can’t go back to subsistence farming; again, that would lead to mass starvation. The critical point is that at the times when these choices were between realistic alternatives those who were in a position to make them overwhelmingly chose one over the other.

Would semi-nomadic herding have preceded sedentary farming?

Herding has the advantage that it turns grass and plants inedible to humans into meat which has nearly everything they need. You get to keep moving around to graze lands and your food moves itself.

Nutritionally, is milk much different from meat? If they’re similar, herding milk-producing livestock means you can feed low quality food that lies all over the ground to an animal and then get a near complete, meat-like diet without killing the animal.

Do we know if the first grain reserves were built to feed mainly humans or their livestock?

It’s not a continuous curve going ever upwards towards “sedentary agriculture”. It varies from place to place, culture to culture and environment to environment - it’s not like sedentary peasants are somehow “more advanced” than their nomadic counterparts.
And you can be a semi-nomadic agriculturalist, too - Great Plains Indians were just that. In the warm months the villages would follow the bison herds, hunt 'em, eat 'em, make every single thing out of them and so on ; then when winter came they went back to the fields of maize and squash they’d planted before heading out and harvest them. They’d also dig silos to store whatever reserves they couldn’t take on the hunt.

Not really. A silo’s a silo, you know ? It’s not like they left a paper trail to account for usage :). That said, in Mesopotamia at least grain was stored in giant granaries slash temple at the heart of the cities, so one’d assume that was for people. Animals get the hay and straw anyway, don’t they ?

That’s not a valid generalization. For one thing, you’re overlooking the agricultural societies outside of Eurasia and Egypt. There were of course major agricultural centers in Mesoamerica and the Andes. One of the earliest centers of crop domestication was New Guinea. Many crops were also domesticated in the Amazon basin in South America.

The interesting thing to me is that crop domestication seems to have begun almost simultaneously between 11,000 and 9,000 in widely scattered parts of the world in quite different climates, just after the end of the Pleistocene at the end of the Ice Ages. Humans seem to have started to domesticate crops as soon as the climate stabilized enough to make conditions somewhat predictable in particular areas.

Daniel Quinn would point to the story of Cain and Abel as an example of our species’ cultural memory of such conflict. Daniel Quinn - Wikipedia

In case anyone thinks that that last bit is not serious, here is a bit more of an in depth analysis of the beer hypothesis. It is not a joke.

Beer and feasts went together. And feasts, with alcohol, served symbiotic religious and political functions. Beer helped make alliances and fostered trade.

But the phrasing of “why” invites one to imagine conscious choices; the reality is that some did and the issue is more “how” the farming model outcompeted the hunter-gatherer one. Once the idea was adopted groups that farmed out reproduced and out-survived those that more exclusively practiced hunter-gatherer lifestyles who either mostly died off or switched to a similar agricultural model themselves.

As the op’s cite points out, first but not least, an agricultural model was much more conducive to have more children and having more of them survive to reproduction age themselves than was the HG lifestyle.

It also sparked new tool-making skills to make hoes and such (including several thousand years in, the wheel) … skills that could then also be applied to creating new weapons to defend the crops, deter attempts to steal, and possibly take others’ crops and other goods. Those with feast facilitated politico-religious alliances were able to be the bigger and baddest at applying those skills and new tools as well. Violence between groups certainly occurred before agriculture but agriculture raised the stakes and began the offensive-defensive-deterrent arms races we still see today. And alcohol was no doubt served at peace talks.
More than Cain-Abel, the Jacob-Esau myth might even more have its origins in symbolic reflection of then not too distant past history conflicts between the models, with the more conniving Jacob the farmer prevailing and giving rise to a nation-state. Esau sold his birthright for some bread and lentil stew when he was hungry, and of note, alcohol was part of how Jacob tricked Issac! :slight_smile:

An archeologist friend told me that relatively few hunter gatherers chose to become farmers. Instead, farmers, with their higher population density, greater organization, and growing population just took more land from the hunter gatherers with every generation, often via war, and eventually hunter gatherers only existed in odd corners of the world.

All part of why it took a VERY long time for the shift.

What I’m trying to get at is that just as humans evolved as creatures physically, they also evolved as societies, and for the same reasons. People react to pressures by trying to adapt, one way and another. I’m not suggesting at all, that the ONLY way a group of humans switches from hunter gatherer to agriculture is because there’s a desert all around the fertile valley they stumbled into. Only that in general, such environmental conditions directly contributed to WHERE such developments took place. Wide flat grass covered plains aren’t nearly as conducive to organizing a defensible permanent settlement as valleys are. And islands do fit the concept every bit as well as valleys do.

Humans cooperating obviously predated the advent of what we refer to as civilization, it was and is necessary for hunter-gatherer tribes, every bit as much as it is for agriculture.

But mainly, I’m just staying with the idea that people didn’t intellectually DECIDE to switch from free-roaming tribes to land-holding groups. They didn’t conduct a formal study by all the brightest and most imaginative hunters and come up with “lets stick food in the ground on purpose and then hang around and wait, and then invent a name for it.” They also didn’t DECIDE to switch from primarily agriculture based lives, to industry based lives either. That evolved as well, and did so every bit as crudely and painfully as the shift to agriculture and semi-stable city life did.

Yuval Harari in his fascinating, and sometimes counterintuitive, pop anthropology book Sapiens has an interesting chapter on the beginning of agriculture. He makes a good case that hunter-gatherers actually ate better than early farmers, but that that mode of food “production” could not sustain as many people - not by a long shot.

Pastoralism was a later development than agriculture.

Animal domestication is just as alengthy a process as plant domestication and the first domesticated animals were dogs, used for hunting other animals.

Early humans weren’t nomadic, they tended to stick in one place. No animals to carry things for them, relying on intimate knowledge of sources of food and clean water, they found somewhere good and stayed there. The seaside was very popular, lots of shell fish and similar food sources.

In some parts of the world there were plants and animals that lent themselves to change through selection by humans, so they ended up with humans planting patches of fruitful crops, and eventually selecting for certain characteristics and bringing animals into the fold.

Some people then became nomads after they came into possession of animals capable of carrying burdens and carrying or dragging humans.

Once out of Africa, humans spread across Asia (and later Europe) like wildfire. You don’t do that by sticking to one place.

Populations expanding the boundaries of their area while establishing permanent farming communities is not how nomadism is defined.

This detail fascinates me also. For say, 60,000 years, from the last population bottleneck until about 12,000 years ago, everyone seems to have hunted and gathered. then within about 5,000 years, several societies at once seem to have evolved to agriculture. Plus, the population in the Americas, who had been isolated from the rest for about 25,000 years and definitely isolated for the last 12,000 or so, also began raising crops within about 5000 years too. It can’t all be climate - the Ice Age just means the prime agricultural areas should have been a few thousand miles further south. IIRC, the Sahara would have been grass plains, for example.

I assume this also - to domesticate food animals efficiently, especially the large ones, and especially in significant numbers you would want fences and corrals. Domestication was a progressive process of culling the uppity animals and breeding the tranquil ones, plus selecting for most productive food production. that’s not something hunter tribal groups of 20 or 30 can do on their own. But once the farmers had corralled and bred a bunch of goats or ox, I’m sure some guy visiting from the outback said “I want some of those…” and it was ideal for the grazing land that they roamed; breeding food was easier than trying to find new food all the time.

Dogs (and cats) were a special case, animals that hung around - dogs scavenged off the garbage piles, and the less skittish eventually found that hanging around with humans resulted in a good meal; as cats found that hanging around the farm granaries meant they got a convenient diet of mice.

Consider the spread through the Americas. 13,000 miles from one end to the other. To do that distance in, say, 1,000 years, groups would have to travel 13 miles a year. Hardly a break-neck speed. They probably went that far in one hunting trip.

I would see two factors at work - as soon as the tribe hit a pocket of very fertile, very lush landscape, they would spread very quickly to cover the entire territory and keep going. Plus, within a generation or two they would exceed the carrying capacity of the land and head out in search of newer pastures… literally.

(For a description of the wildlife to be found in a relatively untamed land, read Farley Mowat’s “Sea of Slaughter” if you can find it - and keep in mind, this describes the St. Lawrence valley and gulf, and much of the rest North America, after centuries or more of fairly intense agricultural settlement, just no firearms. Or read about the size of the buffalo herds in the great plains - where it could take days for the entire herd to go past observers.)

It’s been the subject of debate for a long time but fairly recent research shows that in fact quite a diverse few group of HGs chose to become farmers all around the same time.

Are you agreeing or disagreeing with me? You sound like you’re disagreeing, but traveling 13 miles a year is not “sticking in one place”. Sticking in one place is sticking in one place.

I’m not seeing your point. Is there some research or published papers somewhere with evidence to support that hypothesis? Is this something you are quoting from an anthropology journal or textbook?

Just FYI, I purposely didn’t say they were nomads. I said they didn’t stick in one place once out of Africa. We really don’t know much about how humans lived pre-agriculture since the fossil record is so scarce. It’s quite possible that we lived various different lifestyles depending on the environment we found ourselves in. Our species is nothing if not adaptable.

**Why did humans start farming? **

Poop and Garbage.

They discovered volunteer plants growing in their refuse piles and started to help them along. They could have the berries they picked last summer, 10 miles away, growing right at their base camp without having to go 10 miles again. They set up their base camp, or village in places that would allow them to winter over. Water, some game, maybe a fish run. And there were also technological reasons to just sit the winter out. This was the time when new baskets, leather goods, weapons like spears and arrows will be replenished for the coming spring. And of course this time allowed for the passage of information between the older and younger members of the tribal group, and for trading with nearby tribal groups, and the artwork associated with their mythology. The cedar plank long houses of the Pacific NW first nations is a good example of this.

It was covered in *‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ * by Jared Diamond. A generally informative book that placed a little too much emphasis on his experiences in the South Pacific, but still a good read.

"Poop and Garbage" would probably not have sold as many copies.

And once some wet old grain became beer, Brew Pubs were born, and are still prolific to this very day.

I suggested a reason in my story Putting Down Roots, which isn’t entirely tongue in cheek.


I think you have the times out of wack - mastodons and mammoths were extinct by the Archaic (which is more like 8500-1800 years ago). And agriculture - it wasn’t at the same time as mammoths, it’s only from 2500 BCE onwards. There’s a* lot *of time between those two subsistence lifeways.