A Word on Agriculture from the Intern

Photo Credit to NotionsCapital on Twitter

Everyone needs to eat. Us at Uncouth Gourmands are no exceptions to that rule. In fact, we have been following that rule so steadfastly that we even decided to build an entire business around eating.

But what makes our eating so special and different from those of other animals, say, that of elephants or sharks or cockroaches? Of course, elephants and sharks have no such thing as table manners or eating utensils, but perhaps one thing that most fundamentally differentiates our food and eating behavior from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we manipulate our environment in order to produce our preferred foodstuffs in larger quantities than they occur naturally, which is to say, agriculture.

So how did agriculture emerge in the first place anyway? For more than 90% of the time during the last two hundred thousand years of their existence, humankind has relied exclusively on foraging – hunting and gathering—for their survival needs. So agriculture itself is actually a rather new invention in human history. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins tells us that the pre-agricultural “cavemen” were actually not cavemen at all, but rather members of the “original affluent society,” who were often skilled artisans that lived in various artificial shelters rather than caves and clocked an average of 3 to 5 hours of (food production) work per day. Just imagine that: the handsome, hairy , the patriarch of the  band of foragers from Central Africa during the late Pleistoscene Era, coming home all excited and happy at the thought of attending his neighbor’s seasonal rock art showcase party that evening after a hard day’s work of 4 hours, only to find out that the party has already gone completely dry by the time he has arrived because, well, there are no damn barley fields or vineyards anywhere around them just yet!


I don’t think these girls would have been too happy if they were in ’s shoes. By that I mean, his mammoth-fur feet wrappers…

There are many competing theories that try to explain the exact mechanisms behind the emergence of agriculture, but most theorists agree that agriculture came into existence sometime around the early Holocene Era, almost immediately after the end of the Upper Pleistocene Period, i.e. the end of the Great Ice Age. This is roughly equivalent to what is variously known as the Mesolithic, Epipaleolithic, and/or Archaic Age in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. In fact, the crucial distinction between the Paleolithic (“The Old Stone Age”) and the Neolithic (“The New Stone Age”) is the emergence of agriculture, but this is a topic for yet another – or perhaps thousands of other – article(s). The question of interest for us here is why did agriculture develop across the world all at the same time around this period, no earlier and no later? Bruce D. Smith observes that agriculture emerged independently in at least seven distinct locations in the world, all within a few thousand years.

The late Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe put forward what is now commonly known as the “Oasis Theory.” According to Childe, many arid years immediately followed the end of the Ice Age. This caused people, plants, animals to gather and flourish near the sparse water sources that were available, or “oases.” New symbiotic relationships emerged between different species as the result of living in such close physical proximity, and as people were feeding animals with plants some “genius” recognized that by dispersing the seeds of selected plants in a patch of land near the water and irrigating the area, one can produce vastly more amount of desired plant materials than by foraging. This led to the domestication of plants, which subsequently led to the domestication of animals. A problem with Childe’s theory is that recently excavated evidences show us that the climate on Earth during the Early Pleistocene Era was essentially stable, thus invalidating the most basic premise on which his theory is built, i.e. the occurrence of the long period of worldwide drought immediately following the end of the Ice Age.

Another theory that came into prominence in the Mid -20th Century was Robert Braidwood’s Hilly Flank Theory. According to Braidwood, agriculture first developed in the “hilly flanks of the fertile crescent” situated between the mountain ranges of Zagros-Taurus, a large area of hills and valleys that stretches over parts of modern day Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, where wild progenitors of modern day barley and wheat plants have been found. Unlike Childe, Braidwood, from his own independent researches into the plant and animal remains of the Middle East Region, concluded that the climate of the Middle East some 12,000 years ago, when agriculture first appeared in the region, was essentially parallel to the present-day conditions of the area. His hypothesis is that as the Great Ice Age ended and the climate became milder and more accommodating, humans gradually began to settle down and started leading more sedentary lifestyle. It just happened that the greater Zagros-Taurus region had not only a constellation of wild ancestors of domesticable plants and animals, but also the optimal rainfall of 250 ~ 500 millimeters per year, a vastly fortunate combination for the development of the practice of agriculture. Thus started, the practice of agriculture spread like wildfire throughout the world, because of our “natural tendency” to maximize our productivity and also the increasingly sedentary culture that was more hospitable to its stable, long-term practice, a crucial requirement for the mastery of its exquisite techniques. The problem with this hypothesis is that agriculture does not really increase our food production productivity. As Sahlins observes, “Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human beings.” There was really no need for us to pick up on the practice of agriculture at the cost of sacrificing our productivity, even though we did so anyway. In other words, agriculture was a choice, not a necessity. Archaeologist Henry T. Wright has also observed that the Hilly Flanks in fact are not such a great place for growing plants, contrary to Childe’s assumption.

Now I just said that agriculture was a choice, not a necessity, but some people thought otherwise. One among them was the Danish economist Ester Boserup, who considered the population size as the sole independent variable responsible for the development of agricultural methods. Maybe Boserup decided to ignore all other variables partly or wholly because of her economist’s fetishism for the simple, elegant line of a hyperbolic curve, but soon many anthropologists, archaeologists and ecologists started picking up on the neo-Malthusian hullabaloo from the economists’ side. Notable among them is Lewis Binford and his Marginal Zone Hypothesis. Binford points out that changing our adaptive strategy is a risky behavior, and as observed by Sahlins and many others, foraging often provides superior food productivity over that of agriculture. Therefore, change to agriculture must have risen out of necessity, argues Binford, not of choice. As population growth outstripped the carrying capacity of the area they have long occupied, people moved more and more into marginal zones, where climate and soil conditions were hostile and territorial disputes were the norm. Therefore, agriculture developed in these marginal areas, as there would have been no need for us to practice agriculture in the “Gardens of Eden,” says Binford. The problem with Binford’s theory is that even though it marvelously depicts in a grand scale the anthropological behavioral pattern leading up to the eventual development of agriculture, it forgets to answer one crucial question: why did agriculture develop across the world all at the same time around the Early Holocene Era, no earlier and no later?

American evolutionary biologist David Rindos offers a Darwinian alternative to the agricultural development model. Rindos’s Coevolutionary Theory tells us that natural selection occurred both on the plants and the people using them simultaneously. As the plants began to increasingly depend on humans for their reproduction needs, some plants started providing better return rates than other plants. Therefore, humans also began to “culturally select” and increasingly rely upon those few plants for their survival needs, which eventually led to the development of agriculture. The domestication of animals was also subject to a similar process, a natural outcome of the long-term human-animal interaction. The problem with theory, again, is the simple question: why no earlier and no later?

Ecologist Rowan F. Sage suggests us that perhaps the rapid increase in the atmospheric CO2 level on a global scale during the early Holocene Era, the result of many carbon dioxide molecules trapped inside glaciers during the Great Ice Age being released to the atmosphere as the glaciers melt down, is the reason why the practice of agriculture was developed all around the world at this particular period of time.

Canadian economists Nicolas Marceau and Gordon Myers argue that
agriculture was developed as the result of a few rogue, castaway foragers, or as they put it, “The Early Holocene Breakdown of Community.” As technology developed, our productivity also increased, to the point that we would actually have to voluntarily curtail our productive activities in order to conserve the renewable natural resources. But as always in any time and place of history, there were some greedy bastards who wanted to take a little more for themselves, i.e. to hunt and gather more utilizing the superior technology and more leisure time, even against the conservationist rules of the foraging bands. As these rogue foragers left the bands, the cooperation structures of the foraging bands broke down, which resulted in “a catastrophic increase in work, decrease in consumption and through the over–exploitation of the environment, a food crisis,” forcing us to adapt to the agricultural, sedentary lifestyle.

And now you come to my favorite one. Australian Biologists Greg Wadley and Angus Martin tell us that agriculture was originally developed because, well, we just wanted to get hiiiiggghhhh, and in fact, that is exactly how we achieved the entire art of culture and civilization! In their words:

“Groups led by Zioudrou (1979) and Brantl (1979) found opioid activity in wheat, maize and barley (exorphins), and bovine and human milk (casomorphin), as well as stimulatory activity in these proteins, and in oats, rye and soy… Since then, researchers have measured the potency of exorphins, showing them to be comparable to morphine and enkephalin… and can produce effects such as analgesia and reduction of anxiety which are usually associated with poppy-derived opioids… The effects of exorphins are qualitatively the same as those produced by other opioid and/or dopaminergic drugs, that is, reward, motivation, reduction of anxiety, a sense of wellbeing, and perhaps even addiction. Though the effects of a typical meal are quantitatively less than those of doses of those drugs, most modern humans experience them several times a day, every day of their adult lives…

Climatic change at the end of the last glacial period led to an increase in the size and concentration of patches of wild cereals in certain areas (Wright 1977). The large quantities of cereals newly available provided an incentive to try to make a meal of them. People who succeeded in eating sizeable amounts of cereal seeds discovered the rewarding properties of the exorphins contained in them. Processing methods such as grinding and cooking were developed to make cereals more edible. The more palatable they could be made, the more they were consumed, and the more important the exorphin reward became for more people…

At first, patches of wild cereals were protected and harvested. Later, land was cleared and seeds were planted and tended, to increase quantity and reliability of supply. Exorphins attracted people to settle around cereal patches, abandoning their nomadic lifestyle, and allowed them to display tolerance instead of aggression as population densities rose in these new conditions.”


Mmm…. Look at all those delightful shots of exorphins… I’m craving them already…

Yeah, how much do I love to get high off my milk and bread all the time, baby! But I guess nothing compares to those delicious casomorphin highs that I was getting off my mama’s milk when I was just a crying, crawling, little toddler…

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