View Full Version : Why Only Some Became Farmers: A Global View

Friday, September 3rd, 2004, 01:47 PM
By Noel Broadbent, Goran Burenhult, and Moreau Maxwell
(From The People of the Stone Age, American Museum of Natural History, pages: 187-193)

The transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer was one of the most sweeping events in the history of humankind. Most experts today agree that the impetus for this transition came from need rather than desire. Such a fundamental shift in the way of life led to major changes in social structures, and to the development of new religious systems - farmers' gods were different from those of hunter-gatherers. Increased sedentism created entirely new settlement patterns, and at the same time, population growth increased. Mobile hunter- gatherers have to restrict their group size, both for practical reasons-you cannot carry more than one child at a time during long journeys and in order to be able to survive when times are harsh. In a farming economy, on the other hand, as long as virgin land is available, more hands mean that more crops can be grown and more cattle raised, thus starting an endless circle of population growth leading to a demand for more food.

The developing farming tradition was accompanied by a number of new phenomena. With increased population pressure came the need to control personal territory, and this created the risk of conflict. For the first time, evidence of aggression appears in the form of fortified settlements and ceremonial combat weapons-symbols of power and dominance. With this new emphasis on strength and aggression, women's status declined. In many places, inequality between the sexes had its roots in the social organization of the established farming societies.

With large numbers of people living in the same area for long periods, problems of hygiene arose that were unknown to mobile hunter-gatherers. As time went on, the farming way of life also led to a far less balanced and less nutritious diet than that enjoyed by hunter-gatherers. The quality of stored food deteriorated as a result of infestation by rats and other vermin, creating a breeding ground for new, deadly strains of bacteria. Epidemic disease appeared for the first time.

At the Crossroads

Farming communities were much more vulnerable es to climatic fluctuations than were hunter-gatherers. The possibility of storing grain and keeping domesticated animals led to a false sense of security. There was, of course, a reserve if crops failed, but this meant drawing on next year's seed for sowing, thus depleting stocks and paving the way for future catastrophe. Being dependent on a limited range of foodstuffs, farming communities found it difficult to withstand times of adversity. Farming and herding were also vastly more labor-intensive than hunting and gathering. Why, then, did people become farmers at all? And why did a number of peoples around the globe never adopt any form of farming? Only by understanding why people in certain parts of the world became farmers, can we understand why others didn't.

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was thought that farming emerged as a way of life during the period known as the Neolithic for the simple reason that it was in every respect a superior way of life to hunting and gathering. Some individual, so it was believed, hit upon the brilliant idea of planting a seed in the ground in order to avoid having to wander around to find food. In the 1930s, the Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe put forward what appeared to be a more credible explanation in his so-called Oasis Theory, which postulated an event of such profound significance that he called it the Neolithic Revolution. He suggested that a period of extreme drought in Southwest Asia at the end of the last glacial period forced people to gather at the few oases and river valleys that remained, where their close association with animals and plants led to the process of domestication. Thus agriculture was born.

But Childe's theory was not supported by later studies of Neolithic settlements, which were established in a range of different climatic and environmental settings. Robert Braidwood's work during the 1940s paved the way for a less rigid approach. He suggested that farming emerged largely in response to the ever-increasing cultural differentiation and specialization within different populations-in short, it was a matter of people adapting to local conditions. The oldest farming communities known are found in the so-called Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia (the region stretching from the Levant, through the present-day states of Syria and Iraq, to the Zagros Mountains). In the early stages of these settlements, Braidwood found clear signs that people had specialized in hunting aurochs and wild sheep, and in gathering the wild grasses that were the prototypes of the later cultivated cereals, as far back as glacial times.

Barbara Bender, on the other hand, has argued that it was predominantly social factors that lay behind the changes characteristic of the Neolithic period, such as the development of more complex, hierarchical societies with a wide-ranging network for the exchange of goods between different regions. Parallel to the rise of food production, status symbols and other artifacts came to play a crucial role in these societies.

In various places throughout the world, a series of farming communities developed independently of each other, according to local conditions. In Southwest Asia, for example, wild prototypes of barley and wheat provided the basis for an emerging agricultural economy. Corresponding developments in North Africa were based on millet- in South and East Asia, on rice, and in central America, on corn. Similarly, different types of animals were domesticated in different parts of the world.

The Crisis That Never Was

The fact that the transition from hunting and gathering to farming took place at roughly the same time in many parts of the world indicates that similar factors lay behind the process. But one thing is certain: the late glacial and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers had a much more complex social system (one that had its roots in the Upper Paleolithic period), and engaged in much more specialized subsistence activities, than was previously assumed. It was in these Mesolithic hunting-gathering communities, with their relatively limited tribal territories, that the conditions for developing a system of food production were most favorable. Their knowledge of local food resources was very sophisticated. For example, there is evidence that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in western Europe cleared forests to facilitate the hunting of deer as early as about 6000 BC. At the same time, the dog was domesticated, and even different species of deer may have been kept as domestic animals.

It is a common misconception that huntergatherers must live in straitened circumstances, on the brink of starvation and malnutrition. One should keep in mind that present-day hunter-gatherers are restricted to regions such as semi-deserts and arctic areas-the least hospitable regions on Earth. Modern studies of such societies have shown that the opposite is the case, and that they normally have a very stable supply of food, often with a large surplus. The !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, in Botswana, whose technology is similar to that of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Europe, provide a good example. In this dry desert area, they not only successfully manage their food supply, but can also afford to be very selective when gathering edible plants. It has been estimated that the !Kung collect and eat only about one-quarter of the plant species available, and that they spend only two or three hours a dav searching for food - less than 20 hours a week.

It is clear that the changed climatic and environmental conditions at the end of the last glacial period were one of the main reasons for the rapid development of new economic systems all over the world. In most cases, this process was probably not voluntary. A combination of many different factors gradually forced people to actively produce food to meet the demands of growing populations. In particular, the Mesolithic huntergatherers who lived along the coasts of northwestern Europe can give us an insight into the reasons why people left their hunting, fishing, and gathering way of life, and became farmers.

From Mesolithic to Neolithic

About 6000 BC, the so-called Atlantic period began in western Europe. This was the warmest period after the last glacial, with average temperatures reaching several degrees above those of today. Dense deciduous forest covered the land. There was an abundance of big game, including boar, deer, and bears, as well as smaller animals. Lakes and rivers teemed with fish, and in coastal regions, fish, seals, mussels, and shellfish were plentiful. These were some of the richest resource areas on Earth. Having such a rich and varied supply of food, these people were less vulnerable to fluctuations in the availability of any one foodstuff.

The territory within which these Mesolithic societies moved shrank in size once they no longer needed to cover great distances in pursuit of big game. It has been estimated that the population density during this period was about 1 to 20 individuals per square kilometer (less than half a square mile). Contrary to earlier beliefs, then, the shift to farming did not represent an improvement in people's living conditions. A few hours of gathering per day was replaced by perhaps 10 hours of toiling in hard soil. In addition, gathering food for domesticated animals demanded a great deal of work. As supplies of food became uncertain, people began, for the first time, to suffer from starvation and disease. Yet within 2,000 years, these Mesolithic peoples had become farmers.

Paradoxically, it was mainly in resource-rich areas of the world that farming communities developed. Arctic regions were obviously unsuitable for farming and herding, as were desert areas and tropical rainforests. The only way to survive in these areas is to adapt to the existing environment. As a rule, this requires people to live in groups small enough to be sustainable, and to undertake long seasonal migrations.

The abundant food supply enjoyed by European Mesolithic communities usually led them to adopt a completely settled way of life, a combination that always leads to population growth. By about 5000 BC, the first farming communities had been established all over central Europe, with the exception of coastal western Europe. In spite of close contacts between farmers inland and hunter-gatherers on the coast-as evidenced, for example, by the latter's adoption of pottery and polished stone axes-it was almost another thousand years before these coastal peoples started to cultivate their land and herd animals. Until then, they clearly had not needed to exert themselves in time-consuming farming activities. By about 4300 Bc, however, the Neolithic era was firmly entrenched, bringing to an end the agreeable life of the Mesolithic.

The same scenario was repeated in many parts of the world. Lending support to the ecological explanation is the fact that some farming communities, for ecological reasons, actually reverted to a hunter-gatherer economy. For instance, the first farming community in eastern Sweden, the so-called Vra culture, was established shortly after 4000 BC. About 3000 Bc, a cooler and moister climate (known as the subboreal period) led to a marked increase in the supply of marine foods, especially seals, in the Baltic Sea. The early farming economy that had been established in this region disappeared, and its practitioners instead founded a rich hunting-gathering community, known as the Pitted-ware culture, after their distinctive pottery. This was based mainly on fishing and seal hunting, but some elements of the earlier farming economy were retained, notably domestic pigs.

This very clear-cut Scandinavian example shows how rapidly people adapted to changing ecological conditions in order to secure their food supply. We are thus able to understand not on the complex and richly varied Neolithic process that took place throughout the world, but also the survival of those hunter-gatherer communities at managed to live in a state of ecological balance, not expanding beyond the land's capacity to support them in their traditional way of life-a situation that at the same time fostered social stability.

The majority of the hunting-gathering peoples that have retained their original way of life are to be found in isolated marginal areas, where climatic conditions are extreme. What characterizes all these societies is that they have adapted to their particular environment in highly specialized and often sophisticated ways. Such peoples include the Bushmen of southern Africa and the Pygmies of the central African rainforests, as well as a number of peoples on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, such as the Birhor, the Andamanese, and the Semang.

Two regions, where hunter-gatherers with richly varying economies have existed into modem times, stand out as exceptions within this scattered picture: Australia and North America. For thousands of years, the Australian Aborigines have adapted both to some of the world's most and deserts and to resource-rich coastal areas, notably in northern Australia. Similarly, the North American Indians and Inuit (Eskimos) have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to a range of different environments, from coastal areas in the Pacific northwest to forests, deserts, and arctic tundras.