Human beings have spent most of their time on the planet as hunter-gatherers. From at least 85,000 years ago to the birth of agriculture around 73,000 years later, they combined hunted meat with gathered vegetables.
Some people, such as those on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, still do. The Sentinelese are the only hunter-gatherers who still resist contact with the outside world. Fine-looking specimens—strong, slim, fit, black and stark naked except for a small plant-fiber belt round the waist—they are the very model of the noble savage. Genetics suggests that indigenous Andaman islanders have been isolated since the very first expansion out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago.
About 12,000 years ago, people embarked on an experiment called agriculture and some say that they, and their planet, have never recovered. Farming brought a population explosion, protein and vitamin deficiency, new diseases and deforestation. Human height actually shrank by nearly six inches after the first adoption of crops in the Near East.
Why change? In the late 1970s Mark Cohen, an archaeologist, first suggested that agriculture was born of desperation, rather than inspiration.
The rising human population density, combined perhaps with a cooling, drying climate, left the hunter-gatherers of the region short of acorns, gazelles and wild grass seeds. Somebody started trying to preserve and enhance a field of chickpeas or wheat-grass and soon planting, weeding, reaping and threshing were born.
Quite independently, people took the same step in at least six other parts of the world over the next few thousand years: the Yangtze valley, the central valley of New Guinea, Mexico, the Andes, West Africa and the Amazon basin. And it seems that Eden came to an end. Not only had hunter-gatherers enjoyed plenty of protein, not much fat and ample vitamins in their diet, but it also seems that they did not have to work very hard.
The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, and plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertilizer.
Agriculture also stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard work. Among hunter-gathering folk, men usually bring fewer calories than women, and have a tiresome tendency to catching big and infrequent prey so they can show off, rather than small and frequent catches that do not rot before they are eaten.
It is irrelevant to ask whether we would have been better off to stay as hunter-gatherers. Humanity has embarked 50,000 years ago on the road called “progress” with constant change in habits driven by invention mothered by necessity.
Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change. It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago.
At 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.
There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too. Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet.
We rebounded from the extinction of the mega fauna and became even more in number by first eating rabbits followed by grass seeds. In the early 20th century, we faced starvation for lack of fertilizer when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding a 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.
(image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/baggis/274402787/)