Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff

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For decades, scientists have believed our ancestors took up farming some 12,000 years ago because it was a more efficient way of getting food. But a growing body of research suggests that wasn't the case at all.


"We know that the first farmers were shorter, they were more prone to disease than the hunter-gatherers," says Samuel Bowles, the director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, describing recent archaeological research.

Bowles' own work has found that the earliest farmers expended way more calories in growing food than they did in hunting and gathering it. "When you add it all up, it was not a bargain," says Bowles.

So why farm? Bowles lays out his theory in a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reasons are complex, but they revolve around the concept of private property.

Think of these early farmers as prehistoric suburbanites of sorts. The first farmers emerged in less than a dozen spots in Asia and South America. Bowles says they were already living in small villages. They owned their houses and other objects, like jewelry, boats and a range of tools, including fishing gear.

Written By: Rhitu Chatterjee
continue to source article at npr.org

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  1. I think deferred reciprocal exchange is a more likely model than this crude proto-capitalist vision, given the arduousness of agriculture and its need for a division of labour and collective effort. Building infrastructure requires investment by the individual parties. Hunter gatherer societies studied show this approach of automatic sharing to be the normal mode, that is, a sharing of your own surplus to be able to share others surpluses when times are personally hard. I imagine that this mode of doing business would be found entirely apposite to this very investment demanding mode of agriculture.

    So, I guess I might agree the description here if all investors are the co-owners. I just suspect given the arduousness this will involve the whole community and would have remained so until the advent of super tribes and city states perhaps 8,000 BCE,.

  2. I had heard the story of Adam and Eve was a metaphor for lower quality of life accepted with taking on agriculture with its forbidden knowledge of the mystery of growing apples. Surely there is some sort of natural selection argument. In a dispute over access to territory, an anchored community has the advantage.

    In a hunter gather society rough sharing follows because there is no way to accumulate vast wealth to consume or dole out later. It rots.

    In an agricultural society, if you have accumulated stores and your neighbours have run out, you can extract huge favours of them. I presume that is how social classes got started.

    A memorable movie The Ballad of Narayama about people starving in historical Japan might be instructive.

  3. Australian aborigines survived at least 40,000 years without farming. This article inadvertently implies they were less than human as they didn’t have this accumulating impulse.
    Also, it ignores the horizontal transmission of farming across the fertile crescent some 10,000 years ago, rather than each community spontaneously developing farming.

  4. At this point, Bowles says these communities had a choice: They could either return to a nomadic lifestyle, or stay put in the villages they had built and “use their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.”

    I don’t really think this had anything to do with choosing between the utility of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and agriculture. These changes would have happened over spans of time undetectable by the members of a single generation. There must have been many factors involving the psychology of the humans themselves, their environment, and large spans of time to achieve the transition from hunting and gathering to an agrarian lifestyle.

    The description in this article seems too simplistic and too quick to take a more modern cultural trait and apply it to our fairly ancient past.

    I also recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel to people interested in this topic.

    • In reply to #5 by brianhunt62:

      I don’t really think this had anything to do with choosing between the utility of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and agriculture. These changes would have happened over spans of time undetectable by the members of a single generation…. this article seems too simplistic and too quick to take a more modern cultural trait and apply it to our fairly ancient past.

      That was my impression of the article as well. Also, their are some academics (people who work at the Hoover institute or American Enterprise Institute for example) who have an agenda to see the “free market” as the answer to all social problems. I think that type of bias may be playing a role here.

  5. “We know that the first farmers were shorter, they were more prone to disease than the hunter-gatherers,” says Samuel Bowles, the director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, describing recent archaeological research.

    This seems over simplistic, and to be over generalising. Interestingly the hunter-gatherer forest pygmies and their neighbouring pastoral tribes, show the opposite in body size!

    http://www.pnas.org/content/108/13/5154.full – Before 5,000 y ago, most of sub-Saharan Africa was sparsely occupied by a collection of linguistically and culturally diverse hunter-gatherer (HG) populations (5).
    Within the past 5,000 y the majority of HG populations in Africa have disappeared, either through assimilation into expanding agropastoral (farmer and herder) groups or by extinction. The remaining HG groups include the forest Pygmy populations of central Africa, isolated click-speaking populations of Tanzania, and the “Bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert region of southern Africa. Even some of these groups, however, have been experiencing a transition to agricultural subsistence over the past 100 y

    The expansion of agropastoralist populations has likely had a major impact on the distribution of genetic variation within Africa (3, 9–12).
    However, the extent to which these groups interacted with local HG is poorly understood because HG variation has been poorly characterized.
    Do the current HG populations represent agriculturalists who recently reverted to hunting-gathering or mixed subsistence strategies, as has been seen in other parts of the world (13), or do sub-Saharan HG represent geographically isolated remnants of populations from which other African populations diverged early in human prehistory?

    This suggests the two life styles and some individuals were mixing!

  6. “We know that the first farmers were shorter, they were more prone to disease than the hunter-gatherers,” says Samuel Bowles,

    I think disease can easily be explained. Birds which reuse last season’s nest are more likely to pick up last season’s parasites and diseases. Many animals move around different dens of nests to avoid this. Hunter gatherers leave their pests behind them if they move on. Once farmers settled in on place, this would concentrate diseases fleas etc. in their huts.

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