Monday, September 24, 2018

By the sweat of your brow

This is an interesting but speculative book proposing an alternative hypothesis about why farming began. It even strays into the murky waters of Bible exegesis. The author is a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

According to the standard account, humans took up farming circa 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Since agriculture initially made living standards manifestly *worse*, not better, it's something of a mystery why people would abandon hunting and gathering. The author argues that humans were “proto-farmers” already 40,000 years ago. It was proto-farming which made human migration out of Africa successful. Eventually, it increased the population to such an extent that sedentary farming became necessary, despite its initial drawbacks. Thus, farming wasn't a great and glorious invention at a single point in history, but rather the result of impersonal, gradual processes working themselves out over extensive spans of time. Note the similarity between this and Darwinist evolutionary gradualism – the book is part of a series called “Darwinism Today”.

Proto-farming might entail horticulture, the “primitive” cultivation of certain food crops in garden-like settings. It might also entail attempts to defend naturally growing sources of food (say, fruit trees) from competitors (say, birds, bugs or neighboring tribes). It could also entail a rudimentary form of game management. Apparently, Australian Aboriginals in some regions have traditionally “managed” the kangaroo population by burning vegetation, making certain areas more hospitable to potential game animals. The author also points out that domestication is a broad category. Modern dogs are thoroughly domesticated, but many cats are semi-feral. The point, of course, is that relations of loose “domestication” between man and animal could have evolved relatively early.

The author believes that proto-farming might explain the curious phenomenon of Pleistocene overkill, when human hunters virtually exterminated most large mammal species in the Americas and elsewhere. Since humans had ample food resources thanks to proto-farming, they could kill game animals for sport. Perhaps the males hunted to impress the females? Or to compete with each other? Here, I believe the author strays too much into “just so story” territory. Besides, the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis is controversial, and it's possible that humans entered the American continent much earlier than 13,000 years ago, which seems to be the date favored by the author. If so, the arrival of Homo sapiens doesn't coincide with the mass extinction of charismatic megafauna. Another speculation is that Neanderthals went extinct since they were pure hunters and gatherers, while our species were proto-farmers and hence could outcompete them.

As for the Biblical angle, the author is fascinated by the notion that Eden might have been a real place, and cracks the idea (not original with him, I think) that the Persian Gulf might have been the location of this legendary place (others say it was, ahem, Atlantis). The Persian Gulf didn't exist until the rise of the sea levels at the end of the last Ice Age, and the author speculates that it was a “paradise” for proto-farmers, hunters and gatherers. When the sea levels rose, this tranquil Stone Age culture collapsed as the inhabitants migrated to higher ground in Mesopotamia and were forced to take up the drudging work of real farming to survive. This is the true background of the story of how Adam and Eve were “cast out of Eden”. The story of Cain and Abel probably dates from this period, too, being a story of how the pastoralist Abel is favored by God, while the farmer Cain is rejected, reflecting an age-long conflict between the two groups (the pastoralists are the “bandits” of the book's title).

What makes “Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers” interesting is that it raises the possibility of Stone Age cultures being somewhat less primitive than hitherto assumed, and also discusses angles that may be relevant to somewhat more “far out” speculations about the Lost Civilization or the true origins of the Bible. In a way, it's actually quite ironic to find such ideas discussed in a work dubbed Darwinist!

Four stars.

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