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Agriculture led to inequality

Mayan offering atop a pyramidLast week, I pointed out how farming actually made us less healthy than our hunter-gatherer forefathers.  Agriculture seemed to make us less pleasant as well.

I started becoming interested in early agriculture due to my obsession with Mayan pyramids and Native American mounds.  As I read about the cultures that built these inspiring structures, separated by thousands of miles and years, their stories began to look eerily similar.  Corn showed up, kings sprang up, and the common guy got roped into building giant edifices rather than paying attention to his own life.  When the same story (albeit with a different grain) was repeated in the Fertile Crescent, I figured corn wasn't the culprit; agriculture was.

Evidence from modern hunter-gatherer societies suggests that these people have and had a Ancient Chinese grave goodsvery egalitarian structure with a focus on the good of the tribe.  Peopled lived in communal villages where sharing with the group was the first priority, and individual families and possessions weren't a big deal.  There was no such thing as richness and poverty.  Instead, the whole tribe ate, or the whole tribe went hungry.

As soon as people began farming (and had the ability to store a surplus), our entire social structure changed.  The family became the the first obligation of the individual, and certain families became much richer than others.  Rather than living in nearly identical houses, rich families built large edifices while poor families lived in hovels.  The rich were buried with luxurious goods, while the poor were tossed alone into their graves.  Ironically, surplus food had created poverty.
Building the pyramid
This new notion --- rich and poor --- quickly gave rise to totalitarian governments.  Elite leaders were able to convince or coerce their followers into building the huge structures that still remain as tourist attractions in Central America and Egypt.  Fast forward ahead to the present and we see that even modern democracies are ruled by an elite few.  In essence, the first farmers seem to have harvested inequality along with their wheat.

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This post is part of our History of Agriculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Don't overlook the role of organized religion in creating centralized and totalitarian governments. For as long as there have been kings, there have been priests as well. And the ranks of the royal and priestly elite have been thoroughly intermeshed in most societies.

Of course when you get down to it, organized religion is just a powerful means to control people; threatening people with devine retribution. Most kings claimed at least devine approval (e.g. the "mandate of heaven" in China, the "devine right of kings" in Europe) if not devine ancestors (e.g. Egyption pharaohs being incarnations of horus, Japanese emperors descent from the sun godess).

Also, even in neolithic times there were marked differences in status, as evidenced by burial gifts etc.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Sep 20 13:44:15 2010

I didn't want to step on anyone's toes by getting into religion. :-) I tend to agree with Jared Diamond's (and your) take that religion was an important tool to control the masses. He notes that although pre-agricultural people believed in the supernatural, they didn't have religions (not sure how he could say that, but he did seem to research his assertions.) He noted that religions sprang up right along with kings.

On the other hand, I disagree with your last assertion that there were marked differences in status in Neolithic times as evidenced by burial gifts. Based on the three whole books I've read on the subject (I know, not much :-) ), differences in stature as evidenced by different amount of burial goods definitely followed, not preceded, agriculture.

Comment by anna Mon Sep 20 13:53:01 2010

Religion gets way more respect than it warrants, given the amount of death and suffering it has caused over the milennia.

Besides, the connection between royal and priestly elites is widely supported by evidence. How can it be disrespect to state that?

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Sep 20 14:43:50 2010
Growing up as an atheist in the Bible Belt, tiptoeing around religion just got ingrained in me. It's not so much that I don't want to be disrespectful as that I don't feel like handling the flamewars that ensue (or, worse, folks trying to convert me. That gets old fast.)
Comment by anna Mon Sep 20 15:13:47 2010

Given the amount of Venus figurines found all over Europe and spanning a period from 35,000 years ago to 11,000 years ago, there are widespread theories that they are part of a fertility or mother godess cult. Of course there is no way to prove that.

But the wide spread area and timespan of the founds suggests an important cultural force spanning many tribes and cultures. It could easily have been the longest-running religion in history!

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Sep 20 15:33:00 2010

We've got our own variety of the bible belt over here.

In the late 1970s a lot of those people refused to have themselves and their children vaccinated against poliomyelitis because of religious reasons. With the rather predictable result that a lot of them contracted the disease. All poliomyelitis outbreaks in the Netherlands after the deployment of the vaccine were in these ultrareligious communities.

If an adult wants to make that dicision, I'd still consider it pretty stupid, but I would consider that a persons right (with the exception for healthcare professionals, where I think such vaccination should be mandatory). But to withhold it from your children is something that I would label as mistreatment or even criminal negligence.

In no circumstance I consider such a decision worthy of respect, however.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Sep 20 16:35:08 2010

Thank you, Anna, for being sensitive to the subject and for attempting to prevent the pedantic rants that inevitably ensue comments concerning religion (either pro or con).

Everyone has a right to his or her beliefs but at the end of the day what we have in common here is our passions for creating greater self sufficiency, protecting ecological integrity and forging relationships with those who share some of our goals and dreams in these areas. While our beliefs may or may not be wildly different, they do in some way underpin our formation of and action toward achieving these goals.

Thanks for sharing your research, your projects and your goals with us. I have great respect for what you do.

Comment by Yanna Mon Sep 20 18:17:26 2010

Despite my recent interest in Buddhism, I agree with both of you on religion. More harm than good has come out of the vast majority of religious beliefs. Of course, that's easy to say when I am somewhere between agnostic and atheist, with a hefty leaning to the latter.

I don't bother with too much tiptoeing either... even in the religious south.

Comment by Shannon Mon Sep 20 18:48:32 2010
You all made me laugh, with your pro-arguing about religion or anti-arguing about religion stances. :-) I appreciate how well Yanna put my own stance --- why argue about something unrelated here when we can rationally discuss the topics nearest and dearest to our hearts instead?
Comment by anna Mon Sep 20 19:10:49 2010

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime