Was The Agricultural Revolution Our Worst Mistake?

16 min read
What You're About To Get Into
– A look at the perks and costs of the first agricultural revolution
– Comparing the lives of hunters and farmers
– Making a case for ancestral living

Trading The Spear For The Plough

As a collective species, we’ve been through the wringer, with catastrophic decisions etched across the timeline. With our innate capacity to be dragged around by the whims of the emotional brain, it’s a testament to evolution that we’ve made it this far. From Alexander forgetting to name an heir, to the burning of the Baghdad library, and over to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia… history is littered with contenders for humanity’s biggest blunder. But if a mistake is weighed by its consequences, then these dramatic moments get dwarfed by an event that took place before history entered the record books.

The agricultural revolution marked the decision to trade the spear for the plough, and the end of a lifestyle that spanned several million years. Over a few thousand years of seismic cultural change, the way of the hunter-gatherer came to an end, surviving only in remote patches of wilderness. In his place, the farmer appeared. 

This transition also allowed the engines of civilization to pick up steam, acting as the catalyst that eventually put boots on the moon. So to call it a blunder might seem controversial, and a little asinine. Without the population explosion powered by agriculture, there’s every chance I wouldn’t be here. And if I did find a way to come into existence in a world with a few billion less people, I’d have to give up most of my comforts.

But in spite of the perks, there have been consequences. The agricultural revolution was a trade deal, and our ancestors agreed to pay the price. They received more food, and with it, more people. In return, they gave up their health, and in all likeliness, their happiness. 

The Rise Of The Farmer

Looking at this trade deal from a 21st-century context can be a little deceiving. Compared to past centuries, we’re trekking through something of a golden age. If we want to look at the bright side, there’s plenty to find. A French peasant girl in the late 18th century would, on average, have died before seeing 30. She might have had a different answer to the same question. In order to really assess the cost and benefits, we need to train the lens on the immediate aftermath of the agricultural revolution.

The agricultural revolution coincided with the beginning of the Neolithic period, around 10,000 BC. It signaled the closing piece of a huge stretch of human existence, known as the stone age. You only have to look at a timeline to get a sense of how relatively recent agriculture was. And it wasn’t as if a switch went off and all the hunters collectively realised how to make cobbed corn. 

There is evidence of cereal harvesting tools as fast back as 23,000 BP.  Low-level agriculture would have taken place on and off during the end of the Pleistocene, especially as a response to a fluctuating climate. But things didn’t really kick off till 10,000 BC, when sedentary farming communities began to crop up around the fertile crescent. 

When agriculture began, the cultural shift from nomadic to sedentary would have started as a trickle. One tribe figures there weren’t enough antelope in their little pocket of the world, and chooses to follow in the footsteps of a farming community further downriver. A young man decides to leave his tribe in search of fresh pastures. A steady trickle, that over thousands of years, looked like a storm. Eventually, the nomadic lifestyle was all but swallowed up by the age of the farmer.

Discarding talk of blunders, it can’t be disputed that this was one of the most significant events in human history. We were already stretching the rules of nature by this point, judging by how our hunter ancestors casually wiped out the megafauna. With agriculture in tow, we dominated the landscape, laying down the groundwork for the subsequent industrial revolution. 

The move to agriculture enabled us to outperform nature by creating a surplus of food. While hunter-gatherers didn’t make a habit of starving on death, they often teetered near the edge of sustainability. Especially since they had exhausted their supplies of mammoth steak, downgrading to nimbler, smaller, leaner prey. They would have had the calories to survive, even thrive, but rarely in excess. 

This had the effect of reining in the advance of the human population, which was otherwise unencumbered by natural predators. Without an excess of calories, the women weren’t prone to popping out babies every two or three years. Tribe sizes were also capped by how many mouths they could reasonably feed within their patch of land. The world’s population density pre-agriculture was less than one person per square kilometer. Overall, there were only around 5 or 6 million people roaming the planet, and they were increasing at a glacial rate of 0.015% each year.

With the dawn of the Neolithic, that rate limit on population was thrown out of the book. The surplus of cheap calories helped, but so did the rise of children into a potent labor force. It helped to have an extra pair of hands around to raise profits. Children were weaned at 18 months, whereas in the nomadic days it had taken three years. Population growth became several magnitudes larger. Over a few thousand years, communities swelled from tiny hamlets of 10 houses like the Natufian, to small towns well in excess of 1000 individuals by 5000 BC. By 3000 BC, towns had ballooned into cities such as Ur and Mohenjo Daro, with tens of thousands of denizens.

The agricultural revolution also opened the way up for entirely new industries, because the economy was no longer restricted to dinner and the production of tools needed to chase the dinner. So there was more to life, in the sense that the folk of the Neolithic had more novel ways to ply their trade, and accumulate wealth. Even if most of them had to settle for the grunt work.

Because there was a lot of grunt work, and plenty of misery to go with. It was a tough life to be a farmer in the Neolithic.

On one hand, the positives. More calories, and more babies. In that sense, we fulfilled our natural drive as a species. The agricultural revolution also served as the catalyst for civilisation, which would otherwise have been restricted by the absence of large groups and shared culture.

The case could also be made that the shift to agriculture was made necessary by a rising population and declining levels of megafauna. We had more mouths to feed, and the mammoths had gone, thanks to overhunting. There is decent evidence showing the hunter’s diet going through major changes during the closing stages of the Pleistocene. We had to chase down progressively smaller prey, while the post-Ice Age climate began to favour plants, making farming an enticing opportunity.

But regardless of whether it was a Sophie’s choice or a matter of survival, there were heavy downsides, which I’ll keep in the context of a Neolithic farmer.

1. Lower Quality Food

With farming, humans ditched the red meat and domesticated a few plants instead. Wheat, barley, rice, maize, squash, all cropped up in various regions of the planet. That’s how the narrative goes, but in reality, those plants domesticated us. Farmers did all the hard yards while the grains kicked their feet up, and those crops went from backwater weeds to covering vast swathes of the planet.

While grains produced more calories than hunting or foraging could hope to compete with, the nutrition was significantly worse. On one side, you had a hyper meat diet that was stacked with bioavailable macro and micronutrients. The diet we spent millions of years adapting to make the most of. And to take its place, we picked plants that were low in micronutrients, loaded with sugar, and brimming with various toxins. Grains are essentially seeds, plant babies that are critical for the survival of its species. Those toxins are the means by which the plant can protect its offspring.

Plant Defenses (Just to name a few)

  • Impair digestion
  • Damage cells
  • Disrupt hormones

All that is compounded by the fact that grains aren’t terribly nutritious to begin with. The human body was simply not built to be powered by a plant-heavy diet, and grains least of all. 2000 calories of meat dwarf the quality of 2500 calories of grains. With the former, there’s little to no chance of nutritional deficiencies, while the latter brings certainty. Not to mention the incredibly monotonous diet farmers would have had to contend with. Many would quite literally have had only one or two ingredients. So if you had wanted to be a farmer, then you’d better enjoy the taste of porridge.

There’s no question that farming downsized the quality of human nutrition, and that led directly to many of the following problems.

The Hidden Dangers Of Plant Toxins

2. Less Leisure Time

When thinking of the old cave-dwelling days, many have the idea of people constantly on the edge of starvation, fighting just to survive till the next sunrise. But the average workload of a hunter-gatherer is vastly overblown.

A study on modern-day hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, found that members of the Agta tribe had to work an extra ten hours per week when jumping over to farming. This has been observed in other tribes, giving rise to the idea of hunter-gatherers as ‘The Original Affluent Society’.

And truth be told, the hunter-gatherers of today are a fry cry from the ones that roamed the lands of the Pleistocene. Animals were several magnitudes larger, meat would have been more abundant, and hunting would have provided at least ten times the calories per hour that foraging could muster. So while modern hunter-gatherers get to save a few hours to laze around, their paleolithic forebearers would have had even more time spare for stargazing, hopscotch, painting, or whatever they did for fun.

Meanwhile, farmers had to deal with a ton of back-breaking, thankless work.

3. Increased Risk Of Starvation

The rise in food production can be a little deceiving, because it doesn’t show the mixed fortunes of early farmers. Famine wasn’t so much a possibility as it was an inevitability. After one successful harvest, the next year could be a washout. Fluctuating weather conditions, encroachment from rivals, disease, neglect…there was a cluster of risk factors waiting to strike. For hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, starving to death wasn’t a regular thing.

This volatile climate was underlined by significant regional population collapses across the Neolithic. And famine has continued to be part and parcel of the life of the farmer, despite all the strategies we’ve developed since. The Irish potato blight caused a million deaths. Famine has been plastered across India’s recent history. It’s still a reality of agriculture, where farmers are one botched harvest away from starvation.

4. Infectious Disease

The population spike of agriculture brought people to cluster together in close quarters. The Neolithic progressed civilization from temporary dwellings, to villages, then to towns, and even to whole-scale cities. The narrow alleyways would have been thick with the stench of muck and feces. Domesticated animals would have lived alongside humans, enabling various viruses to jump across species. 

People were essentially wallowing in their own filth, stuck in the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases like cholera, malaria, and smallpox. Many of those diseases, like smallpox, were likely already plaguing humans before agriculture, but the low population density (less than one person per square km) prevented them from reaching epidemic levels.

Much like the case with famine, squalor-based diseases have continued to plague humans into recent history. Many have been successfully neutered with jumps in medicine, but in a congested environment, there will always be another fresh epidemic knocking down the door.

5. Chronic Disease

Hot on the heels of infections, came the mismatches. Conditions that appear to be caused when humans get placed in an environment that clashes with their evolutionary adaptations. Diabetes goes back to at least 1500 BC, a disease that is correlated with seed oils and excessive amounts of sugar, two ingredients in a grain-based diet. Ancient Egyptian mummies also show signs of atherosclerosis, which in turn can be caused by diabetes

With the advent of agriculture, humans were placed in a war with their own nature. Constantly eating in excess, which can lead to all manner of diseases, is an evolutionary mismatch. Hunter-gatherers may not have been starving, but they wouldn’t have been piling on the calories.

And with cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and other chronic diseases of civilisation, this rabbit hole can go a lot further. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, tended to skirt around these issues. There’s a fact doing the rounds, that hunter-gatherers had a lifespan of less than 30. It’s a statistic that gets blurred by high rates of infant mortality, which is entirely understandable with limited healthcare. Low infant mortality is a creation of modern medicine, and hunter-gatherers who survived the ritual of childhood lived to around 70.

6. Stunted Growth

The agricultural revolution knocked us down a few pegs, quite literally. There is strong evidence to show a decline in height across the Neolithic, even enduring into the modern day. Skeletons in Greece and Turkey revealed that hunter-gatherers had an average height of around 5’9 for men, and 5’5 for women. By 3000 BC, that had sunk to 5’3 and 5’. The Greeks and Turks have been making up ground since then, but they still can’t match the levels of their nomadic ancestors.

Height itself is a good reflection of health through childhood and adolescence, because optimal nutrition is needed to reach the maximum height written into your genetics. The sudden drop, because 8000 odd years is a blip in human evolution, is a telling indication of just how bad the farmer’s diet was.

7. Social Order

Finally, the cherry to set on top of this Faustian bargain. The agricultural revolution created a cultural transformation, where humans traded low-risk living for a high-risk, seemingly high-reward way of life. The goal was now to create surpluses, rather than simply making ends meet. The environment became something that had to be tamed and exploited. Controlling that surplus meant power. 

Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, didn’t even bother stockpiling food until about 30,000 years ago. When they eventually did resort to food storage, it was a necessary response to strong seasonal fluctuations. While the hunter-gatherer was focused on his immediate needs, the farmer became future-orientated.

Everything hinged on the next harvest, or seizing that patch of fertile land on the other side of the river. Even if it meant running through his neighbour with a spear. Agriculture gave rise to long-term planning, large-scale economics, and with it, social order. The drive for survival became inextricably intertwined with money and power. Conflict became inevitable.

If you’re looking for something to blame for both world wars and our modern political woes, then you can always pin it on farmers.

Ancestral Living

The agricultural revolution set the stage for the hivemind of civilisation, and the riches that came with it, but your average Neolithic farmer would have seen little. Social hierarchy pulled us to where we are now, and I’m not suggesting that we should break that up and head for isolated paleo hippie communes. This article is bent on sizing up the benefits that the Neolithic farmer would have received, and from almost every angle, their lives were significantly worse.

In fact, many of these afflictions continued to hound humans well past the agricultural revolution, lasting until the modern inroads into medicine, hygiene, and food production. Until then, commoners had to settle for living in their own filth. The farmer’s life only got worse in the few thousand years between the Neolithic and modern times. 

While the effects of squalor have now been somewhat neutered, we’re still vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease. Meanwhile, chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease have picked up steam over the last few decades. It’s probably going to get worse from here. As technology continues to transform the landscape, human biology becomes more irreconcilable with its environment. Modern medicine responds predominantly by fighting symptoms, leaving the cause unblemished, and keeping the patient on a drip. 

It’s much the same case with nutrition, where people are bent on inventing new-fangled diets, even lab-grown foods, to fix growing issues across the population. The drive for better hygiene itself has been blown up into an idea of a pristine environment purged of microbes. 

The cause remains at large, which was set in motion by the agricultural revolution. Humans were plucked out of their natural habitat, and paid a dear price for it. And while we don’t need to return to being hunter-gatherers to fix this mess, we can certainly incorporate elements of an ancestral lifestyle. The primal diet is still out there. You don’t have to slam down a bowl of porridge every morning. Nor do you need to live a life of constant excess, or be content with being a cubicle slave. 

Learn from the mistake of that hunter-gatherer who swapped his spear for a shovel.

The Apex Blueprint For Ancestral Living

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Matt Roberts
Matt Roberts
1 year ago

Great article

1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Roberts

Thank you!