Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 07, 2020

The worst mistake in human history

I believe it was Jared Diamond who applied the title of this post to the so-called neolithic revolution. Beginning about 12,000 years ago in the Levant - the region where the Bible stories we are reading are set -- and occurring at various later times around the world, people started cultivating crops. This meant abandoning the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and living in permanent settlements. Exactly why this happened, and why it happened so universally even in very distant places, is a matter of much dispute, and I won't get into that here. 

Now you might think this happened because agriculture makes people healthier, more prosperous, and more secure. But you would be wrong. Archaeological evidence shows convincingly that when people abandoned hunting and gathering in favor of agriculture, they became much less healthy. Average stature fell from something like 5' 10" for men and 5' 6" for women to 5' 5" and 5' 1". It took until the 20th Century for people to regain the adult stature typical of 10,000 BC. Life expectancy fell, and people were plagued by nutritional deficiency and infectious diseases that were very uncommon in the earlier epoch.

However, cultivating cereals and other crops did mean that the population density could be much higher, because there were a lot more calories available. How, you may ask, did hunter-gatherers maintain their low population density? Ah, that's the dark side of Eden. They apparently had means of contraception, but failing that we believe that infanticide was often practiced. In any case, the availability of milk from animals enabled women to space births more closely, and populations increased.


The dense, permanent settlements required more social structure. Fields and technology such as irrigation ditches had to be controlled and managed. Instead of a continual harvesting of naturally available resources that varied according to the seasons, a single large harvest had to be stored and doled out over the the year. This required hierarchy, but it also meant that a surplus was available to support people who did no productive work, but only exercised power. These people could now own substantial property, including the land itself. The typical society was ruled by an alliance between a priestly caste and warrior kings. (We are about to see this system emerging in the Book of Joshua, by the way.) Unlike shamans, the priests did not merely communicate with the spirit world, they promulgated systems of rules, taboos and ceremonial observances, and demands for tribute. The warrior king generally claimed divine sanction, or even to be a kind of God himself. The status of women fell severely, in part because they were much more preoccupied with child bearing, and in part because of the greater importance of physical force in maintaining the social order.


Ownership of land, and the existence of a warrior caste supported by the agricultural surplus,  meant a new kind of war: military conflict among highly organized, well armed professional armies over control of territory. Conquest led not only to pillage but to the new institution of slavery as conquered people became property. A few individuals in the top ranks of society were well fed and enjoyed luxury, though often insecurely. But most were immiserated. There were no debates about liberalism vs. conservatism or the proper role of the Supreme Court. Anyone who challenged the authority of the priests and kings would be killed, probably by torture. So that was much of the world for the next few thousand years. It didn't happen exactly that way everywhere, but it did for most of the societies whose names we know and whose stories are told in our history books.

The next installment, I hope, will be more interesting.




CBD said...

Come to think of it, I've never think it that way!

mojrim said...

I believe he calls it "the middle passage" that 6000-8000 years of things being more or less the same despite surface changes like monotheism. The funny thing is, despite the organized warfare and rigid hierarchies, the toll of violence has been vastly lower than in pre-agricultural societies.

The phrase "choose your poison" seems to apply everywhere.

Cervantes said...

Mo, as far as I know the evidence does not support your last assertion. There is scant archaeological evidence of interpersonal violence in pre-agricultural societies. As I say, there is some, but if you are aware of evidence that it exceeded the level in civilization please provide it.

mojrim said...

What I have seen indicates a 25% mortality rate among males in non-absorbed pre-agricultural societies, from the Yanomamo to New Guinea Highlanders. Permit me to recommend Gwynne Dyer's "War: The Lethal Custom." He's a bit preachy on the subject of total war and avoiding nuclear catastrophe, but his examination of our record as a species is comprehensive.

Chucky Peirce said...

I recall reading >somewhere< that the central highlands in New Guinea was discovered by the rest of the world to be populated only in the early twentieth century. It was broken up into a patchwork of tribes, each with its own unique culture and often, language. There was a lot of hostility between neighboring tribes. Lookout towers were ubiquitous, and raids and skirmishes frequent.

I think this might be an example of what mojrim was talking about.

Cervantes said...

We don't know whether these modern examples are typical of the paleolithic. Note that modern hunter-gatherers are generally people with an agricultural past who have reverted to a hunter-gatherer way of life. The geography of the new Guinea highlands is unique, and the Yanomamo are highly atypical of Southern American indigenous people in their warring tendencies. The Mbuti and !Kung in Africa, for example, are largely peaceful. I don't think we can really know about the situation in pre-history. It probably varied considerably from place to place and time to time.

mojrim said...

While we can assume variance to some degree, the economies of such lives are fairly consistent and drive similar behaviors. The New Guinea Highlands and upper Amazon are unique primarily in their isolation, allowing anthropologists to study non-absorbed people. From the anthro standpoint these societies are not unique. If you examine the oral histories of any existing tribal society (e.g. the !Kung) you will find them soaked in blood. Even the archeological record supports this.

Cervantes said...

Well, looking at the link,

This is about agricultural societies well after 10,000 BCE. As I say, we don't really know very much about societies before that.

mojrim said...

Some are, some aren't. Nubia 117 runs 12,000-10,000 BC, the Ukraine site 9000 BC. There's plenty of evidence there for violence in the neolithic. Obviously we lack the written records beloved of historians but that doesn't mean we know nothing. The combination of archeological record and studies of the above mentioned societies yield a rather shocking record of bloodshed. Hell, we learned the same watching chimpanzee troops. This idea we were relatively peaceful is 18th century Rousseauist nonsense repackaged by Margaret Mead.