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The domestication of crop plants is an enormous subject. It has enabled and accelerated a long sequence of unfortunate unforeseen consequences over the centuries. Of course, the same could be said for the domestication of animals. If domestication had never occurred, life in the twenty-first century would look nothing like the world outside your window. There would be no windows.
Our population would not be zooming down the fast lane to eight billion, nine billion…. We would not be helpless sitting ducks today, standing in the path of an onrushing out of control climate shit storm. Wild folks would have never conjured techno-nightmares like automobiles, cell phones, cities, nuclear bombs, or pesticides. Agriculture produces megatons of surplus food, which enables societies to feed and clothe herds of nerds, who are highly skilled at maximizing unsustainability in every imaginable way.
Agriculture was not an amazing invention created by a brilliant mad scientist. For four million years, every hominin who had more than two brain cells clearly understood that plants grew from seeds. Agriculture was not an awesomely cool fad that spread like wildfire around the world. As long as wild foods were adequate, it would have been ridiculous to deliberately shift to tedious, miserable, backbreaking work.
When hunters have an unlucky day, they can lose a day’s work. When farmers have bad luck, they can lose more than a year’s hard work, and have no safety net to catch their fall. Crops can be zapped by drought, deluge, late frost, early frost, fire, storms, plant disease, enemies, wildlife, insects, and so on. High rewards came with high risks.
Kat Anderson described how hunter-gatherers in California “tended” the wild landscape to encourage the growth of wild plants that were useful to them. They didn’t strip the living green skin off the land, pulverize the naked soil, and plant seeds. That would have been ecologically insane. They had no need to do that. They had plenty to eat because their time proven culture was well adapted to their land, and because they hadn’t stumbled into the trap of domestication.
Mark Nathan Cohen wrote an important book that described how agriculture emerged independently in several different regions. It was a jarring transformation for humankind. Hominins had been hunters for four million years, a highly successful strategy. Until 10,000 years ago, everything on the menu everywhere was wild foods. By 2,000 years ago, most of humankind depended on food produced on farms.
Preceding this shift, hunters had spread around the world. They had gotten very good at killing large game, and a number of megafauna species had been driven into extinction. Also, as the ice age weakened, the climate got warmer, and forests expanded into steppe and tundra regions. Forest was not prime habitat for herds of horses, reindeer, and mammoths. These herds shrank or dispersed. So, the menus had to be rewritten to include more offerings of stuff like waterfowl, fish, crustaceans, small reptiles, mollusks, and plant foods.
Barry Cunliffe noted that the recovering forests of Europe were home to more solitary game like aurochs, boars, elk, deer, and small animals. The total biomass of these forest animals was only 20 to 30 percent of the biomass of the tundra herds they replaced. Less meat led to a significantly smaller population. It was easier to survive in locations close to coastlines, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, where a year round supply of a wide variety of foods could be gathered.
This new way of living apparently worked well enough for a while. No wild plants suitable for agriculture were domesticated in early Europe. At the time, much of the continent was still forest. The primary food of civilizations is grains. Grains are produced by grass species like wheat, oats, barley, and so on. For this reason, large scale agriculture did not emerge in forests or jungles.
Meanwhile, to the east, in the awesome grasslands of the Fertile Crescent, there was so much wild plant food that some groups had the option of giving up the nomadic life and settling down in delicious locations. Cohen noted that the seeds of wild wheat (emmer and einkorn) and wild barley provided storable starch (calories). Storable protein was provided by peas, beans, lentils, and vetches. In North America, the primary starch was corn, and beans were the main source of plant protein. Grasslands were also excellent places to hunt.
Cohen noted that the practice of agriculture migrated from its birthplace in the Fertile Crescent. It moved into southeastern Europe between 7000 and 5000 B.C. It then spread along the Mediterranean coast, and into the Danube river watershed. At the time Europe was already inhabited by scattered communities of hunter-gatherers.
Whether agriculture primarily spread through Europe by migration or diffusion is controversial (probably both). In Australia, it spread by migration, when outsiders from Britain brought their dirty habit with them. In North America, it apparently spread by diffusion, as corn and beans spent centuries gradually making a long pilgrimage from Mesoamerica to Ontario.
Diana Muir wrote an environmental history of New England, from the ice age to today. On the tundra, folks hunted mastodons, horses, bison, and four species of mammoths. There were sabertooth cats, giant bears, giant beavers, and musk oxen. As the climate warmed, forests spread northward, gradually displacing tundra. The elk, moose, and tropical primates managed to survive. As megafauna declined, folks hunted for deer, bear, beaver, moose, waterfowl, turkeys, and heath hens. Rivers had huge runs of salmon, shad, and alewives.
Eventually, the seeds of corn (maize), squash, and beans reached New England. Tribes that got addicted could produce far more food per acre, and support a larger population. Their new diet had nutrient deficiencies which had health effects.
I’ve already mentioned ideas from Mark Nathan Cohen’s book, The Food Crisis in Prehistory, in which the archaeologist and anthropologist explored what drove the transition to agriculture. Twenty-two years later, he published Health & the Rise of Civilization, which extensively examined how health declined in agricultural societies. The healthiest people were the hunter-gatherers who dined on large game.
The shift to agriculture took a toll. Teotihuacan was a city located not far from today’s Mexico City. It was home to a culture of pyramid builders. At its prime around A.D. 500, it had about 125,000 people, and was the biggest city in the world. Cohen wrote that it had very high rates of malnutrition, stunted growth, deciduous tooth hypoplasia, and infant and child mortality. I’ll have much more to say about human health in a later chapter.
Anyway, there is strength in numbers, and farmers trumped hunters. In any region that was suitable for the agriculture of the day, the hunters were in danger. A dozen healthy, well-nourished hunters were unlikely to triumph against 100 malnourished corn farmers with bad teeth. Corn typically depleted soil fertility in a few years, so clearing new fields was an ongoing necessity.
Farmers were not friendly new neighbors. Over time they were more like an uprising, a steamroller. Muir described how the corn powered Iroquois gathered momentum over time, pushing out the tribes of Algonquin hunters. Cunliffe wrote that when agriculture moved close to your home sweet home, you had four choices: (1) exterminate them, (2) take up the dirty habit, (3) flee, or (4) be overrun.
James Scott, a political scientist, studied the dawn of agriculture in southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states — hierarchical societies with rulers and tax collectors, sustained by a mix of farming and herding. The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice. Taxes were paid with grain, because it was easier to harvest, transport, and store than foods that were more perishable. An entire field of grain ripened at the same time, which enabled one sweep harvesting.
Today, southern Mesopotamia is largely a treeless desert, and many assume that it always has been. Actually, it used to be wetlands, a cornucopia of wild foods, a paradise for hunters and gatherers. There was so much to eat that it was possible to quit wandering and live in settled communities. Edible plants included club rush, cattails, water lily, and bulrush. They also ate tortoises, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and migrating gazelles. The ecosystem was generous, and life was good.
In this region, communities of sedentary hunter-gatherers began appearing by maybe 12,000 B.C. The first evidence of domestication appears around 9000 B.C. Then, it took another four thousand years (160 generations!) before agricultural villages appeared. The first states emerged around 3100 B.C. In the Middle East, it does not appear that early cultivation was encouraged by declining availability of wild plant and animal foods. Contrary to common beliefs, in Mesopotamia, cultivation seems to have emerged in regions of abundance, not scarcity.
In the early days, there was no need for irrigation. Stream banks and river deltas were covered with alluvium — a moist and highly fertile deposit of clay, silt, sand, and gravel that was delivered by annual floods. It was a soft and loose soil that was ready for sowing. So, in addition to the wild grains they enjoyed, it was fairly easy to sow seeds in the fresh deposits of alluvium.
Scott mentioned archaeologist Hans Nissen, who studied the ancient Near East. Nissen noted that for quite a while, the climate had been wet and warm. With adequate rains, abundant water moved through the streams and rivers. The Tigris and Euphrates watershed emptied into the Persian Gulf. Nissen measured the accumulated sediments on the floor of the Gulf. Thicker layers of organic matter indicated times when lots of water was moving lots of silt. This study illuminated climate patterns.
Prior to roughly 3500 B.C., so much water flowed into the Gulf that its water level was 10 feet (3 m) higher than it is today. The north shore of the Gulf expanded quite a ways into southern Mesopotamia. Much of the region was then wetlands, and folks resided on islands. It was a paradise for happy wild people — plenty to eat year round.
But then, climate trends gradually shifted toward cooler and dryer. Less rain led to lower water tables. The Gulf’s shoreline retreated. Wetlands began drying out. It became possible to plant seeds on the highly fertile, newly exposed soil. For a while the alluvial soils were a sponge that held enough moisture that crops could be grown without irrigation, but this situation was temporary.
Nissen noted that wild grains still grow in Mesopotamia. Today, in remote locations, folks can gather two or more quarts (or liters) of grain in an hour — a decent supply of calories for minimal effort. On the other hand, cultivated grain grown in irrigated fields can produce far higher yields, sometimes two or three harvests per year.
Here is where the domestication of wheat played an important role. Wild wheat grass readily drops its ripe seeds, which maximizes reproductive potential — evolution’s goal. But this minimizes efficient harvesting. Lots of seeds drop to the ground and are not collected. So, over time, selective breeding favored plants that retained their seeds.
Also, wild wheat seeds are coated with hard husks, which reduce the risk of premature germination. Farmers have to remove these husks. This can be accomplished by pounding or roasting, but then the seeds are less likely to germinate. So, over time, selective breeding favored plants that produced seeds having less troublesome husks.
Annual grain yield was important, but effective storage was equally vital. The primary objective of agriculture was not to produce millions of morbidly obese rats, or impressive heaps of stinky rotten wheat. Grain was best stored in large closed vessels of fired clay.
Gold is dense and shiny, but you can’t eat it. Its only value is when you find odd people with vivid imaginations who believe that a shiny yellow stone is something of immense value. Stored wheat, on the other hand, is something you can eat, food that can sustain your survival. A full granary is truly precious to folks who enjoy being alive, it is a genuine treasure.
History is clear on one thing — stored treasure is fantastically tempting to ambitious hard-nosed folks untroubled by morals, like Vikings, Mongols, or billionaires. Tacitus, writing in A.D. 98, described the wild German tribes. “They actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.”
What may be the world’s oldest story was found etched on clay tablets in southern Mesopotamia — the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s the saga of slimy King Gilgamesh who clear-cut ancient forests, triggered massive floods and erosion, and built the city of Uruk.
Nissen spent a lot of time digging up stuff in Uruk, which is now scruffy ancient ruins surrounded by a barren brown wasteland. [LOOK] In the days of its glory, was a highly advanced place. Nissen called this era “the beginning of early high civilization.” It had writing, large artworks, and monumental architecture. Gilgamesh built a wall around Uruk that enclosed an area of 1,360 acres (5.5 km2). The wall included at least 900 semicircular towers.
Around the world, throughout history, it is no coincidence that settlements with stored treasure (especially granaries) have commonly been surrounded by walls, moats, palisades, and so on. Alfred Crosby wrote a tragi-comical history of the evolution of weaponry, from stones to hydrogen bombs. Many, many centuries were devoted to a tireless arms race — ongoing efforts to use new tricks for destroying walls, and new countermeasures for defending the stored treasure.
OK, back to Mesopotamia. As the climate got cooler and dryer, rain decreased, river flows decreased, and the water level of the Gulf dropped. Less water was available for irrigation. Plus, as river flows dropped lower, their channels dug deeper into the soil. This caused even more water to be drawn away from the surrounding land.
In the driest regions, agriculture could not survive without irrigation. Over time, an enormous canal system was built in Mesopotamia. The unintended consequence of this brilliant technological masterpiece was catastrophe. Regular irrigation led to salt buildup in the soil (salinization), which rendered it permanently infertile, killing the golden goose.
Salt-nuked cropland had to be abandoned, forcing folks to concentrate in more urban settlements. With more people crammed together, conflict levels increased. To avoid social meltdown, conflicts needed to be brought under control. This need encouraged the further intensification of civilization — powerful leaders, laws, enforcers, obedient tax-paying citizens, and hard-working slaves.