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Neolithic Revolution: Where did agriculture come from?

Wild barleyMankind has fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers for 99% of our time on earth.  Why did we suddenly put down our spears and pick up the hoe?

Archaeologists agree that several factors coincided to make agriculture possible around 8500 BC.  Wild cereals were already part of the diet of nomadic hunter-gatherers, but around 10,000 years ago climate change increased the extent of these fields of native grain in the Fertile Crescent.  At about the same time, we began to develop tools and tricks necessary to take full advantage of the wild grains --- we created sickles, baskets, and mortars and pestles; we figured out how to roast grains so that they wouldn't sprout during Stones for grinding wheatstorage; and we developed underground storage pits.  Suddenly, a family could gather enough seeds to feed itself for a year during the three week ripening season of the wild wheat.

Now, as someone who spends months during the summer carefully tending my crops, I was a bit stumped when I read that last fact.  If I could just go out and pick wild swiss chard, okra, and tomatoes for three weeks once a year and not have to plant and weed all season, I think I would choose the former occupation.  Why did these early wheat-eaters turn into farmers?

The switch from gathering this abundant wild wheat to growing it seems to come down to one factor --- overpopulation.  At the same time that wild wheat was expanding in the Fertile Crescent, large wild game was becoming much less numerous, either because of climate change, because we became better hunters, because our numbers exploded, or some combination of these three factors.  Whatever the reason, hunting was no longer really working for us, so wheat became more and more important in our diets.
Young wheat plants
It seemed sensible to settle down near the important wheat fields, and this change in turn dismantled the factors that had previously kept our population in check.  As nomads, our women had been limited to bearing children about four years apart in age since the first child had to be old enough to walk by itself before baby number two could come along --- Mom could only carry one kid at a time during frequent moves and I guess Dad wasn't the nurturing type.  But we no longer had this restriction in our new, settled lifestyle, so our reproductive rate doubled, with women producing on average one child every two years.

When previously ample wheat fields suddenly became too bit puny to feed our burgeoning numbers, agriculture was the clear solution.  By clearing new ground outside the natural wheat fields, we were able to plant wild wheat seeds and reap harvests from a larger area.  Agriculture was born.

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





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Some historians / anthropologists think men had to have their hands free to carry weapons which leaves child-toting to the women. Others think that's silly since there were plenty of adolescents to carry children not yet able to travel on their own.

But I think the bigger issue has to do with mortality rates. I don't know the sources from that period, but when the author talks about the birth rates, is he counting pregnancies or is he counting children who survive childhood? In the early-modern period, a woman who was nursing her own children (which is most women except the very, very wealthy who used wet nurses and got pregnant more) could expect to get pregnant 6-7 times on average, and, on average, 3-4 of those children would survive childhood. It's grim, but it's population control. Besides the mortality rate, there's also the issue of how long pre-modern women nursed. It's my understanding that early-modern European women weaned their children somewhere between the ages of 1 and 2, but certainly in some cultures it's longer. That's going to reduce the birth rate also, if children aren't being weaned until they're toddlers.

Just some more thoughts.

Heather

Comment by Heather Wed Sep 15 13:56:53 2010
The books I got the birth rates from actually went into a bit more detail than I did. They did touch on mortality rates, and on length of nursing time. Another factor they brought up was that hunter-gatherer cultures tended to practice active population control like nursing longer (which you mentioned), abstinence, infanticide, and abortion.
Comment by anna Wed Sep 15 14:07:02 2010

Have you read J. M. Auel's Earth's Children series? They're novels and do not purport to scientifically accurate, but she did a lot of research for those books and I think it gives an interesting and plausible look into life in the stone age.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Sep 15 14:08:39 2010
That's The Clan of the Cave Bear and sequels, right? I did read a lot of those about 15 years ago, but I don't remember much of the specifics. They could definitely bear a re-read!
Comment by anna Wed Sep 15 14:18:14 2010

Yes, that's them.

Personally I like the the later parts (The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone) better than the first, but YMMV.

According to Wikipedia;

The series includes a highly-detailed focus on botany, herbology, herbal medicine, archaeology and anthropology

Quite interesting I found them.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Sep 15 17:15:56 2010

Some years ago I came across a mortality graph by age through the centuries. What struck me most where the two bands of high mortality that could be seen; The first was children dying young (I've come across figures of 300 deaths in a 1000 live births in the age group below five in the ages before modern medicine). The second was women dying in childbirth in their early twenties. What surprised me was how only relatively recently those figures have changed.

A now extict plant called silphium was known as a contraceptive since ancient times. It has been found depicted on 2500 year old coins. Given the large amount of folk knowledge concerning medicinal use of plants, there are probably many more.

I suspect there were also strong regulatory effects from the environment in the case of hunter/gatherers. If food is scarce, aren't the old and young usually the first to die? I guess that this makes sense in evolutionary terms because neither group is in the reproductive age. Furthermore one would expect the chances of miscarriage to increase in times of food shortages or nutritional deficiencies.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Sep 15 17:53:24 2010

My understanding is that even though farmers clearly knew the same population control measures as their hunter-gatherer neighbors and ancestors, they didn't practice them (or at least not much). According to the books I read, kids were a boon in a farmer society because you could set them to work in the fields from a pretty early age. Reading between the lines, I wonder whether that type of new farming society gave rise to the religions that that forbid birth control?

Stay tuned for Friday's post to answer your last paragraph....

Comment by anna Wed Sep 15 18:40:01 2010
Heather's comment seems to mean that as long as a woman is nursing her child she will not get pregnant. That is a MYTH!!! It is certainly possible to get pregnant while you are nursing, as I have a wonderful son conceived while nursing my first son. Do not rely on nursing as a birth control.
Comment by Sheila Wed Sep 15 23:08:54 2010
Wikipedia says: "The lactational amenorrhea method (LAM) is a method of avoiding pregnancies which is based on the natural postnatal infertility that occurs when a woman is amenorrheic (not having her period) and fully breastfeeding." My take is that, like other types of early birth control, nursing isn't nearly as effective as condoms, but it does have some effect. LAM is supposed to be 99.5 to 98% effective, but only for the first six months (and only if you're solely breastfeeding and doing that often.) After that, it looks like you're more and more likely to get pregnant again.
Comment by anna Thu Sep 16 07:56:32 2010
I think it's really funny that you're posting on this right now. I've just been teaching pre-modern family structure to my students. You've got good timing.
Comment by Heather Thu Sep 16 11:02:04 2010
I'm so glad to have good timing. :-) Since it's fresh on your mind, feel free to poke as many holes in my musings as you want!!
Comment by anna Thu Sep 16 12:16:06 2010

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