The Agricultural Revolution took place about 12,000 years ago and brought many benefits. Find out how the lifestyle changes humanity embraced then also led to the conflict, disease, fitness and nutrition issues we cope with today.
I come from a long line of farmers. My ancestors came to this area as pioneer settlers before the confederation of Canada.
Our family kept up that agricultural tradition for five generations. Even before that, their ancestors had been farming in Ayrshire, Scotland.
Starting in the 1960s, my parents’ generation gradually moved off the land and into towns and cities. It was something of a revolution where hundreds of 100-acre family farms merged into a handful of larger operations.
Leaving the Farm Was a Definite Lifestyle Change
It was a definite lifestyle change. For the rest of their lives, my parents seemed to mentally divide their marriage into two phases, the dividing line being “when we left the farm.”
Even so, it wasn’t as radical a revolution as what happened 12,000 years ago. That’s when, after being hunter-gatherers for millions of years, humans suddenly shifted to agriculture.
Professor Clark Spencer Larsen is a professor of anthropology at Ohio State University. He earned his PhD in biological anthropology in 1980.
Human Remains Tell Us About Ancestors’ Behaviour
That’s the study of ancient human remains and what they can tell us about our distant ancestors’ behaviour, lifestyle and diet. Professor Larsen has been researching that subject for over forty years now, and he’s a leader in his field.
He’s headed professional societies, like the American Association of Biological Anthropology and the Anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He served as the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology as well as a book series on his subject.
Last month, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a special, eight-article feature on bioarcheology. Professor Larsen organized and edited the article series, contributing two of the articles.
Major Issues Today Result From Agricultural Revolution
He entitled his introductory article, The past 12,000 years of behavior, adaptation, population, and evolution shaped who we are today. That’s a recurring theme running throughout the feature – humanity’s major issues today are consequences of that agricultural revolution twelve millenia ago.
As Professor Larsen put it, “We didn’t get to where we are now by happenstance. The problems we have today with warfare, inequality, disease and poor diets, all resulted from the changes that occurred when agriculture started.”
When our ancestors had to forage for their food, their lives were active with temporary living arrangements. If conditions changed and food became scarce, they moved on with no special attachments to particular places and no notion of private property.
Built Permanent Settlements and Became More Sedentary
Once they got used to farming instead, they built permanent settlements in fertile locations and became much more sedentary. “That has had profound implications for virtually every aspect of our lives back then, now, and going forward.” Professor Larsen explained.
The most visible change the agricultural revolution caused was the population explosion. Agriculture caught on during the Late Pleistocene age, when there were only ten million people worldwide.
So, the human population of the entire world back then was roughly the same as the number of people who now live in New York City. Today’s global population is over 8 billion, 800 times our natural numbers.
Agricultural Lifestyle Leads to Less Varied Diet
A settled, agricultural lifestyle leads to a less varied diet. People shifted from foraging among all the food sources nature had to offer to relying on a limited range of domesticated plants and animals.
Today, rice, wheat and corn make up the diet of most people in the developing world. Diets like this lack nutrients, particularly protein, which often causes malnutrition.
Living in communities also led our ancestors to think in terms of neighbours versus strangers. Professor Larsen and his team looked at the strontium and oxygen isotopes in ancient humans’ tooth enamel in several farming communities to identify genetic relationships.
Communities of Similar Family Groups With No OUtsiders
Only one of those communities, Catalhoyuk, in what’s now Turkey, had any newcomers or outsiders living in it. All the rest were made up of members of similar family groups, like tribes or clans.
“This was laying the foundation for kinship and community organization in later societies of western Asia,” Professor Larsen said. Another issue that arose from tight-knit agricultural cultures was violence over disputes about scarce arable land.
One of the articles in the feature studies human remains in early farming communities throughout Europe. They concluded that roughly 10% of those community members died from traumatic injuries sustained in fights of one kind or another.
The recent pandemic has raised everyone’s awareness of infectious disease prevention. That’s another problem that stems from the agricultural revolution.
Farm Animals in Close Quarters Spread Diseases
COVID is an animal-borne disease that apparently took hold among people in a farmer’s market in Wuhan. When our ancestors started raising farm animals in close quarters, they began the spread of countless common infectious diseases we still cope with today.
Although they had nothing like the influence on Earth’s climate that humanity has today, our ancestors often faced short-term climate changes. Once communities relied on domesticated plants, they became sensitive to droughts.
Disasters Brought Out the Best and Worst in People
Local disasters seem to have brought out the best and worst in people during the agricultural revolution. The researchers found evidence of economic inequality, racism and other forms of discrimination in the ways some cultures dealt with these local emergencies.
Communities with more inequality and prejudice experienced more violence after disaster struck. In today’s “global village,” the economic disparity between developed and developing countries is a major obstacle to solving the climate crisis, and experts feel it could also lead to armed conflict.
None of this is a call for humanity to return to the Stone Age. “The changes brought about by agriculture brought plenty of good for us,” according to Professor Larsen. “It also led to increasing conflict and violence, rising levels of infectious diseases, reduced physical activity, a more limited diet, and more competition for resources,”
Astounding How Rapidly Revolution Took Place
In the end, it’s astounding how quickly the agricultural revolution took place. “When you look at the 6 or so million years of human evolution, this transition from foraging to farming and all the impact it has had on us – it all happened in just a blink of an eye,” Professor Larsen explained. “In the scale of a human lifespan it may seem like a long time, but it really is not.”
The population explosion that emerged after the Pleistocene age has made humanity our planet’s dominant species. So much so, in fact, that many researchers are calling for our present epoch to be renamed the Anthropocene, or the “age of humanity.”
And Another Thing…
Given the issues raised above, that designation would be both an indictment and a tribute. There’s also a global movement calling for a new era for our planet to be called the Ecozoic – a vision of integrated relationships between humanity and the rest of the web of life.
Is the Ecozoic era possible? The alternative is no planet at all. Professor Larsen, for one, is optimistic that humanity can overcome its current challenges.
“We are remarkably resilient creatures, as the last 12,000 years have shown,” the scientist said in conclusion. “That gives me hope for the future. We will continue to adapt, to find ways to face challenges and to find ways to succeed. That is what we do as humans.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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