Perhaps one of the most important milestones in human history after bipedalism. And it makes sense, a lot of great things came from agriculture like the mass production of potatoes and dense populations and my personal favorite, the oppression of women. Let’s give some credit to the honorable mentions though because we can’t forget about organized warfare, social stratification, and animal-born illnesses like smallpox!
Before agriculture came along, humans relied on hunting and gathering. These small hunter-gatherer tribes were primarily egalitarian meaning men and women and everyone else were equals. But everything changed when the last ice age ended. The de-thawing of the planet isn’t solely responsible for the development of agriculture because if that were the case, everyone would’ve developed it at the same time. Although some cultures did develop and begin to rely on agriculture after the ice age, many continued their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, cultivating wild plants and animals when needed. This transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is formally known as the Neolithic Revolution, taking place approximately 11,000 years ago. It didn’t take place 11,000 years ago for everyone, it likely began in the Fertile Crescent, but it happened to so many people at once that it was significant enough to be a revolution.
Agriculture was not instant, the domestication of plants and animals took thousands of years if not more; although, the whole soviet fox experiment makes it seem pretty easy. Humans did not realize what kind of un-tapped god-like powers they possessed: the ability to change (or destroy) their environment. Humans went from being nomadic and following the food, to being sedentary and growing as much food as they wanted. With the possibility to grow seemingly infinite food, all they needed were workers—children! All those “Venus figures” finally made sense, fertility was the most important value. You need fertile crops in order to survive and you need fertile women in order to make workers to maintain the crops.
Instead of hunting animals with the guys, women were now spending all of their time popping out babies like the modern American pops pain killers. If you’ve ever heard someone tell a woman she has “child-bearing hips,” they’re wrong, no human has “child-bearing hips.” When humans developed bipedalism they got super narrow hips that are not fit to birth large-headed human children, this evolutionary flaw is why even today 700 women die during childbirth every year in the United States alone. Because being a woman was so risky, they were not reliable enough to be chiefs or kings. They can’t run a city if they’re just going to die during childbirth, so for better or worse patriarchy became a universal practice.
As nomads, people had no personal belongings, it was not efficient to carry around more than the bare necessities. With farming, people suddenly had their own land and possessions and they were going to protect that land if it was the last thing they did. With greed comes warfare. If one settlement suffers crop failure, they have to choose whether they want to starve or if they are going to steal from another settlement. To protect crops and livestock, many settlements built walls and created stronger weapons capable of fending off attackers. Eventually, these civilizations got to the point where they would have enough resources to get by but to expand and gain power, they would conquer surrounding civilizations. The ancient city of Babylon is an example of both walls and the constant fight for power. Babylon was a very long-standing city, surviving generations of warfare that led to the collapse of many of the surrounding cities. Whoever ruled Babylon had unmatched wealth and power, humans two favorite things (or at least my two favorite things). To successfully conquer other civilizations you need strong warriors. Even though fertility is still a critically important part of survival, it was pushed to the side and the strong male warrior was now idolized.
Social stratification is where people are now ranked based on their occupation, wealth, and worth. Social stratification is required in these large civilizations, someone has to be in charge to keep everyone in line and those directly below the king or chief assist in controlling the population along with the military and religious leaders if applicable. There are very few exceptions where complex societies had no evidence of religion, social stratification, and/or warfare. One example is the Harappan culture of the Indus River, existing from 2500BCE-1700BCE. The Harappans were an advanced full-fledge city-state, however, despite being the size of a city-state, there was no evidence of social stratification or social inequality.
How could a city-state not have a ruler? Who keeps everyone in line? How did people prevent greed from affected social status? Harappans did have walls like most other city-states, so they weren’t that different except there was no evidence of warfare or invasions. What were the walls for if not for protection? The Harappans did have art, but not in the typical sense. Almost all Harappan art was found in places like Mesopotamia, not Harappa. It seems that they used art primarily for trade rather than things like status symbols and elaborate burials. The Harappans also had a writing system—an undeciphered one. Without a written history there’s no way to know how the Harappans survived so long without the things thought to be quintessential parts of all complex societies. Ultimately the Harappan culture did collapse around 1700BCE for reasons unknown.
It’s possible that the Aryans invaded and the Harappans went down without a fight due to their complete lack of a military, but more likely it was environmental. It sounds obvious that they were invaded and easily taken over, but if it was just the environment, then the Harappans could be evidence that it’s possible for humans to be peaceful and successful. John Locke would probably use the Harappans as a way to prove that humans are inherently good, despite almost all other cultures fitting better into Thomas Hobbes’ idea of human nature.
The debate of whether humans are inherently good or evil is still up for debate, otherwise, I would not have been the only person in my high school class to believe Hobbes’ was right. Perhaps humans were good. Before agriculture, there was essentially no greed or warfare, but after the Neolithic Revolution we see humans skinning other humans alive, ripping each other’s jaws out, sacrificing puppies, throwing bodies into bogs after being strangulated, using biological warfare to wipe out populations by the millions, burning cities and raping women just to what? Flex? And all that happened before World War II. Either human beings are evil or just incredibly creative with no outlet other than hurting each other.
So was agriculture really all that great? Without agriculture we would not be where we are today, but what are the modern repercussions of the Neolithic Revolution? A study by Ola Olsson and Christofer Paik of the University of Gothenburg studies the connection between an early transition to agriculture and a tendency to develop autocratic societies with social inequality while cultures that adopted agriculture later are more likely to have stronger egalitarian values. Countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, all early adopters of agriculture have all recently experienced symptoms of state collapse, political violence, desperate citizens, and militaristic governments. Meanwhile, Nordic civilizations, which adopted agriculture later, have some of the least corrupt governments and most highly advanced economies in the world. A second report by the same authors shows that regions that adopted agriculture early value obedience more and feel “less in control of their lives.”
This is because irrigation-based farming gives rise to “centrally coordinated production structures which, in turn, lead to collectivist cultural norms,” while rain-fed agriculture may require less coordination and is thus associated with individualistic norms. Olsson and Paik conclude that “The strong collectivism in the early agricultural societies gradually becomes more and more unbearable for the independent and self-reliant individualists, who find it difficult to accept subordination to increasingly powerful rulers.” It’s impossible to change the past so whether agriculture was the source of all things wrong with the world doesn’t matter. Agriculture sunk its teeth deep into human culture and advancement and humans can no longer live without it.