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Agriculture led to world domination

Cro-Magnon cave paintingNearly as soon as people in the Fertile Crescent started to farm, they embarked on world domination.  If you'll recall, I argued that overpopulation lay at the root of the original farmers turning to agriculture, but agriculture only exacerbated the overpopulation problem.  Not only did sedentism allow early farmers to double their birth rate, children suddenly became useful as farm hands and old folks became fonts of wisdom rather than a drain on the tribe.  Ill health wasn't enough to counteract this trend toward increased population, and those new people had to go somewhere.

From the moment agriculture began to spread beyond the Fertile Crescent, it took a mere 300 years for farming to displace hunting and gathering throughout Europe.  I'd like to Map of Indo-European Languages, 500 ADbelieve that the contemporaneous hunter-gatherers (like those pictured above) saw how much fun it was to grow wheat and jumped on the bandwagon, but archaeological evidence suggests a different story.  Archaeologists can tell the difference between the artifacts of the hunter-gatherers and farmers of the time, and there is absolutely no evidence of cultural interchange between the two groups...except for spear points.  By mapping the offshoots of their language --- known to linguists as Indo-European languages --- we can see that these people not only took over Europe, but also spread out across southern Asia.

As Jared Diamond eloquently argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel, you can continue to trace the spread of the first farmers to the domination of the Americas.  Europeans' early domestication of plants and animals turned us into war machines --- we had enough spare Conquistador fighting Incas from horsebackfood to feed full-time soldiers and the leisure to invent technologies of war like swords, guns, armor, and far-ranging ships.  Farming also led to the ability to write, and effective communication was a big factor in our ability to win battles against stronger foes.

Domesticated animals were also essential in the European march toward world domination.  Horses were important because foot soldiers can't stand long against a warrior on horseback, but the real reason we devastated the native people of North, South, and Central America was disease.  Many experts believe that by the time Europeans returned to the Americas with conquest in mind, smallpox and other diseases from earlier contact had already wiped out around 95% of the native population.  Europeans had evolved a partial immunity to the deadly disease since we'd had to face smallpox ever since we domesticated its original host --- cattle.  In contrast, Native Americans had only domesticated the turkey and the dog, so they had no similarly deadly diseases to rebuff us with.

In essence, overpopulation gave us the impetus to dominate the world and agriculture gave us the means.  Clearly, wheat has a lot to answer for.

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





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Europeans' early domestication of plants and animals turned us into war machines

I wonder if this is the root cause, or if it was competition for resources that caused it? In the stone age the population was small and competition for resources presumably less.

we had enough spare food to feed full-time soldiers

Isn't that a relatively recent development? The first full-time soldiers on a large scale I can think of out of hand are the ancient Spartans. Most other Greek city-states maintained citizen armies. And there were the Roman legions from the late Republican era onward. But those were not the norm by any means. Few nations could afford large standing armies. At least into the middle ages there were lots of part-time farmers/citizens/soldiers.

Horses were important because foot soldiers can't stand long against a warrior on horseback

Not by definition. In the Napoleonic wars infantry regiments "formed in square" were almost invulnerable to cavalry. It seems horses are not too keen to charge into rows of bajonets (or pikes).

but the real reason we devastated the native people of North, South, and Central America was disease.

But not just those. At least one one occasion the black death decimated about 30% of the European population. And there were other epicdemics too.

Many experts believe that by the time Europeans returned to the Americas with conquest in mind, smallpox and other diseases from earlier contact had already wiped out around 95% of the native population.

So it was the explorers that unknowingly did them in? Couldn't it have happened the other way around just as easily? A couple of sailors bringing back an unknown disease from the New World would have caused havoc in Europe.

Clearly, wheat has a lot to answer for.

One could also argue that this is just evolution (of societies) in action.

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Sep 21 13:41:49 2010

I think you should read Jared Diamond's book --- he fleshes all of this out in much greater depth. I was keeping things simple in my post, so I didn't go into all of the specifics. Here are some specific answers to your points (but read the book for many, many more!):

Competition for resources resulted directly from our domestication of plants and animals --- as I noted in early posts, it was the advent of agriculture that allowed our population to explode. I think that you're not looking at the bigger picture in a lot of your other points too (for example, how recent standing armies are.) Jared Diamond's point is that domesticating the first grain set us on a trajectory that led to standing armies, not that the early farmers immediately had standing armies.

As for your other points --- it's one thing to learn to stand against cavalry when you've seen cavalry in action and had time to get used to it, take those lessons home, and ponder a way to work around the cavalry's advantages. It's another thing to be faced with men on horseback when you'd never considered mounted soldiers and hadn't had time to devise strategies against it.

About plagues --- I was using smallpox as an example. Jared Diamond walks you through how all of the other epidemic diseases are also related to our domesticated animals, why we had to reach a certain population size before the microorganisms that produce epidemics could survive (rather than wiping themselves out when they wiped out their hosts), and why --- for those reasons (lower population and less time as an agricultural society) --- the Americas didn't have similar epidemic diseases to send back with the European explorers and wipe out Europe.

Comment by anna Tue Sep 21 13:59:59 2010

It's on my list, like many others. I'm still not finished with Roger Penrose's Road to Reality nor Feynman's Lectures on Physics. And then I'm learning the Lua and Python programming languages. And I recently saw Stephen Wolfram's "A new kind of science" mentioned, which looked very interesting. Sigh.

I think I could read for years on end and still not be bored. Maybe I should have become a librarian instead of an engineer. :-)

Of course these days there is also wikipedia. I used to think that my parents' encyclopedia was the biggest time sink I ever found. Little did I know...

Comment by Roland_Smith Tue Sep 21 15:50:47 2010
When do I get to be a font of wisdom? I can't wait.
Comment by Errol Tue Sep 21 15:53:58 2010

Roland --- I totally know what you mean. Reading is probably my biggest time sink, and my book list is always growing longer, not shorter....

Daddy --- Didn't you notice my post about harvest catch-all soup? That's clear evidence that you're already a font of wisdom. :-)

Comment by anna Tue Sep 21 16:05:38 2010

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