So here we are. Self-sufficient, we think. Everything we need, we produce ourselves. Food, building materials, medicine, machines for travelling, clothes, fuel, energy. If we believe in our TVs and newspapers, we have all of those in abundance. And if we have shortages, well we just need to find more effective ways to increase production. We are humans. We are civilized. Whatever we need we can provide. We do not depend on the rest of the living community as long as we have our wits and our ability to work hard. That is our gift.
Or is it?
From what anthropologists tell us about present and former civilisations, agriculture seems to be an intricate part of cilivilised societies. But not just civilised ones. Tribal people have been doing agriculture too, maybe for as much as 200000 years. Think of it. We can’ t verify ‘when agriculture started’. That in itself hints on a much earlier start than the beginning of written history. Could it be that it has been around since the beginning of homo sapiens? Just like singing? Or cooking? Or tool making?
Think back to a life as hunter-gatherers.
As our ancestors collected edible plants, they must have had favourites. Plants that tasted particularly well, plants that provided better nourishment than others, even plants that would help cure diseases. The same goes for animals. Some species just provided more proteines than others, were probably easier to hunt, came with a smaller concentration of toxic substances in the meat.
As we witness in remaining hunter -gatherer-cultures in African and South America today, they would probably have recognized that your favourite plants grow in bigger numbers, carry more or bigger or sweeter fruit, if you cut away other plants around, giving them more light, if you give them extra water, if you add animal dung, ashes from your fireplaces or rotting remains of food to the soil around them. And finally if you collect their seeds and plant them on patches of land that you prepared before.
Similarly, hunters, seeing that they were depleting their favourite sources of meat would have realized that it was possible to not only drive a herd over a cliff but also to lead them to areas with an abundance of gras and water, thus helping the animals to keep their numbers high. The forefathers of our forefathers had hunted the mammoth to extinction, losing an important source of food, construction- and clothes-making materials, but they probably did not want to repeat that mistake.
Thus it is not hard to understand how and why gatherers gradually turned into farmers, hunters turned into herders. It was the logical thing to do if you wanted a steady supply of your favourite food.
At the same time it also is easy to see how the amount of work that was put into these early forms of agriculture was gradually increasing while food supplies also became more reliable. Or did they? For a small number of species that might be true, but did relying on those more and more make our ancestors forget which other edible species were out there? Anthropological data shows that about tenthousand years ago, humans were using about one million different species, plants and animals, as basic food sources. Civilised man reduced that number to slightly over one hundred.
But does that change come with the invention of agriculture?
Not exactly. It is connected to the idea of getting ALL the food out of agriculture. Which is basically the idea of not only helping our favourite food sources to grow in larger numbers, but feeding on them exclusively. Think about it. I can pretty much name all the basic food species people in my country are living on. It is not a big number. And most of them are only available fresh at certain times of the year unless grown or raised indoors, up until a few hundred years ago a technical impossibility.
If a culture decides to live on agricultural products only. What does it have to do to have enough food all year long? Correct. It needs to store some of it. And, correct again, in order to store some of it, it needs to produce more food than it has an immediate need for.
That also means that it needs someone to decide who gets how big a share of the stored food when. And someone who guards the store. There we have the first pyramid. From now on, a few people decide about the distribution of food within the whole group. And there also is a whole group that doesn’t take part in generating food, but is given food in exchange for making sure, only authorised people get access. At this point the basic structure of civilisation is complete. And all it took was a seemingly small decision.
The decision to depend on agriculture as a food source only.