Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From hunter-gatherers to farmers - Quick thoughts on an Economist article

Agriculture is so pervasive and necessary in sustaining populations that it can seem a natural accompaniment to humankind, something that has been there since time immemorial. The notion is so strongly rooted that we tend to forget that agriculture - which, in essence, is the domestication of wild plants and animals for human benefit - was one of the great innovations in history: our ancestors gradually perfected it by constantly experimenting with the natural world. And they did this only some 10,000-12,000 years ago. That's fairly recent if we consider that for countless millennia before the advent of agriculture, as far back as 85,000 years ago, we were all hunter-gatherers.

The agrarian lifestyle is a radical shift from that of a hunter-gatherer because food production is much more efficient. As a consequence, farmers can dedicate themselves to producing food while others can carve their own niches: warriors can spend more time fighting and training; builders can ponder longer over architectural nuances; artists can mull over their masterpieces; and priests can go about invoking gods. Specialization of this sort does not run deep in hunter-gatherer societies.

With agriculture, in other words, come the trappings of a complex, organized society.

Was this shift good for us? Population densities increased; wars and weaponry got more sophisticated; increased interaction with domesticated animals meant that diseases could more easily jump from cattle to humans; the natural environment around us was altered to suit our purposes; and – for those of us conscious of egalitarianism – there was certainly more inequality. While all these aspects have broader dimensions to them, they are generally used to highlight the negative aspects of an agrarian society.

But this recent article in The Economist poses an excellent counterpoint: Was it really a peaceful Eden when we were hunter-gatherers? Did we really live in harmony with our environment as is often claimed? The hunter-gatherer societies of today - !Kung of the Kalahari, the Inuit of Arctic, the aborigines in Australia – are constantly involved in tribal conflicts with high death rates. This might be an effect of modernity, but then perhaps not – Steven Pinker thinks not in his well articulated TED lecture.

And it appears that hunter-gatherers wreaked much havoc on the environment as well. Sample this from the Economist article:
Returning to hunter-gatherers, Mr LeBlanc argues (in his book “Constant Battles”) that all was not well in ecological terms, either. Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.

This was also true in Eurasia. The earliest of the great cave painters, working at Chauvet in southern France, 32,000 years ago, was obsessed with rhinoceroses. A later artist, working at Lascaux 15,000 years later, depicted mostly bison, bulls and horses—rhinoceroses must have been driven close to extinction by then.
So maybe the time before agriculture should not be seen as an Eden-like continuum. Rather it should be seen as a time when we were faced repeatedly with ecological crises of our own making – just as one seems to loom upon us now – and when we innovated ceaselessly to get ourselves out of these crises. I’ll leave readers with these two closing paragraphs from the article, which provide a great perspective on human history over the last 80,000 odd years:
Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change. It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.

There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too. Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.

The first picture shows one of the many brilliant paintings in the caves of Lascaux. The paintings are about 16000 years old.
The second picture is from the Economist and credited to the Bridgeman Art Library. In the article the picture appears with this interesting caption: "Another fine environmental mess we've got ourselves into."

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