Was the Agricultural Revolution a Massive Fraud?
For almost all of Homo sapiens' estimated 200,000-year history, our species lived as hunter-gatherers, uprooting wild plants, gathering wild nuts, picking wild fruit, and hunting wild game. And life wasn't that bad. Granted, it was nomadic and occasionally uncertain. We lived off the land and were at the land's mercy. But more often than not, nature provided all the sustenance we needed.
Around 12,000 years ago, the human way of life began to change drastically. We stopped moving around and foraging for food and instead brought plants and animals to us. This change, known as the Neolithic, or Agricultural, Revolution, heralded the beginning of agriculture as we know it. Generally, it's considered an unquestionable advancement that led to improved living conditions, increased lifespan, and ultimately to the development of technology and all the perks of modern life.
But many anthropologists and historians now question whether the advent of agriculture was the pure progress that we denizens of the developed world all presume it to be. In his new book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem even goes so far as to call the Agricultural Revolution "history's biggest fraud."
"The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return," he writes.
Harari's arguments aren't without basis. From studying the skeletons of Native Americans who transitioned from foraging to farming, Emory University paleoanthropologist George Armelagos found a 50% increase in tooth enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia, and a threefold rise in bone lesions. Another study examined the stature of Early Europeans who lived between 40,000 and 8,600 years ago. Before the Agricultural Revolution, men stood roughly 5'10" tall and women were 5'6". Afterwards, average male height dropped to 5'5" and average female height fell to 5'1". Those heights have since recovered, but researchers suspect that a dietary switch from less protein to more refined carbohydrates may have been to blame for the decline.
In an article in Discover Magazine, UCLA physiologist and popular science writer Jared Diamond gave three reasons why agriculture may have hampered health:
First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition, (today just three high-carbohydrate plants -- wheat, rice, and corn -- provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease.
While a switch to agriculture was both a blessing and a curse for mankind, the crops we domesticated received only benefits.
"Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many... Suddenly, within a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world," Harari writes.
Think about it: Does wheat serve us? Or, do we serve wheat?
"Wheat didn't like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn't like sharing its space, water, and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was defenceless against other organisms that liked to eat it... so the farmers had to guard and protect it."
Growing wheat and other food crops allowed humanity to multiply as never before, but, at the time, it did little to improve the life of the average human.
"This is hard for people in today's prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement," Harari says.
The Agricultural Revolution moved much of humanity forward, but it also left a sizable portion in the dust.
Even today, when technology has allowed us to improve and streamline food production, 805 million people remain undernourished and 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese. There's little question that the Agricultural Revolution ultimately benefited humanity, but it was not without costs, some that we are still paying.