First farmers

The development of plant and animal domestication happened more like a scatter of shotgun pellets than a rocket launch.

This is because domestication arose, not as an new insight or brilliant invention: all hunter-gatherers know perfectly well that seeds and tubers will grow if you plant them.

There is great usefulness in the distinction between immediate return and delayed return foraging systems. However this is a gradient, not a binary.  Food surplus to daily requirements is frequently brought into camp among Kalahari foragers; it is usually because they gather – deliberately – enough for two days. On the morning of third day, any left-over and limp plant roots or bulbs are planted behind huts. Women joked about this as their way of “farming” – and indeed, on gathering trips, they would detour past old campsites to harvest plantations of tasty root crops.

If enough was left over of more durable food, it would be stored. I saw people caching stores of wild nuts after an especially bountiful harvest, and they also stored dried meat.

Ironically extreme delayed return systems and sedentism were a human adaptation to the ecological conditions that were characterized by massive pulses of energy-dense foods (salmon runs, wild annual cereal all ripening at once, massive game migrations funnelling through a limited route, etc), and then followed by a dry or cold season of food scarcity.

This common problem? Passing tipping points setting off negative trophic flows in the surrounding ecosystem! Local wild species adapt to intense human harvesting by becoming bitter or harder to gather (plants) or become scarcer, more dangerous, or going extinct.

Hunter-gatherers can avoid this by staying mobile. Even if sedentary, as long as they do not run out of options for dispersing excess people to new settlements,  they can focus more on the resources that are mobile, like seasonal fish spawning, or herds passing through on migration routes, and thus put off the crisis for thousands of years.

Faced with declining food resources after the tipping point is reached, humans solved this problem by increased their management of the ecosystem. They did this by
a) bringing in seeds of less bitter varieties to plant deliberately, and
b) reseeding -deliberately- the cereals which had become impossible to harvest easily.

Remember there would have been a genetic change towards non shattering rachis that occurred, simply due to the way hunter-gatherers harvest wild cereals by knocking the ripe seeds into a container. Dependence on such cereals as negative trophic flows set in would be an obvious first response, by the way, to the elimination fo easier options. Most of the San women I knew regarded gathering of wild cereals as a desperation activity, it was finicky and painstaking and only worth doing in an especially bad year.

Increased reliance on wild cereals, thus, created increased – but unconscious – selection for a non shattering rachis, since these were the ones left behind by the gatherers.  It also eventually led to poor natural germination, since many of the wild seeds that remained stubbornly attach to the rachis and never got to the ground. So we begin with typical stands of wild annual grasses, reseeding themselves easily since the mature grains scattered away from the rachis at the slightest disturbance. Enter parties of gatherers, making use of this by gently brushing seeds into baskets as they passed through the stand of grass.

What would remain behind? Seeds that were more securely ”stuck”. As generations passed, the gatherers would find fewer seeds falling into their baskets. Eventually they would find that the only way to get the ripe seeds off the plant’s seed-head (rachis) was to mechanically rub or beat it off. Cutting the whole plant head off and taking it to a kind of “threshing” place was the best solution. Of course this all involved the development of new technologies – sickles and threshing equipment. Bundling up grain in “staves” as is illustrated in the medieval painting above also involved much additional labour, as did the whole business of getting the grain ready for storage. If you are cutting down whole fields of wild plants, you leave very little seed behind for the plants to return in the following year. You have broken the plant’s reproductive cycle.

At that point, the busy hunter-gatherers will definitely notice a decline in the wild stand from one year to the next. Other plants, like dandelions, and pigweed, and thistles, that still have their wild reseeding pattern well developed, will start to take over. At that point, the logical hunter-gatherer will turn to the stores of grain back in the settlement, grab a few bagfuls, and walk around tossing out handfuls of seed all over the places where the valued cereal stands usually grow.  So, the need to deliberately reseed – the shift into “farming” – happened to solve a problem (and offset new risks)… and it happened in many times and places where sedentism, based on large stored harvests of wild cereals, occurred.

It is not the humans that are more complicated, it is their interaction within ecological systems that are more complicated when human economies begin to depend on control over plant and animal reproduction.  Now far more labour and concentrated attention had to be focussed on the care of certain species than ever before. Larger task forces had to organized; teenagers and even younger children were now often recruited for “chores”. This also redirected the way people managed the remaining “wild” parts of their ecosystems.  As populations became more sedentary, over-exploitation of the remaining “commons” became a problem. Rather than let local forests be cut down in a competitive free-for-all, or local wildlife be driven to extinction, many communities developed systems of management that preserved the commons.

Consider previous models that have been proposed to explain why civilization arose. People have played with ideas about the rise and fall of civilization for years. Look at Turchin’s overall theory of warfare causing elites to develop and centralized authority to emerge, or the theory of secular cycles and that various civilizations have a predictable life cycle and tend towards collapse. But how does this begin in the first place?

I find it useful that some theorists (Joseph Tainter and William Catton) have at least incorporated the concept of carrying capacity. However a more fruitful model would increase the contribution of ecological feedbacks. The role of environment degradation and negative trophic flows has so far not been sufficiently integrated with our models of social change and economic diversification.

We’ve been too preoccupied with the idea that the development of civilization was some kind of positive evolutionary step, whereas an ecological analysis reveal that it occurs out of desperation to preserve previous investments. It seems to me that those of us caught up in industrial economies – whatever the gradation of political flavour from communist to capitalist – must now relearn an ancient truth: there is no honour in harming others. The Golden Rule is, ultimately, about political ethics, not private morality.

I have lived for a time in several economic systems that are much older and more sustainable than the current industrial global one. I never thought much about the concept of honour while I was growing up, but it was the key to understanding the whole worldview of the hunter-gatherers I lived with in the Kalahari in southern Africa, and also of the subsistence horticultural and pastoral people in the West African Sahel. In these systems personal honour had direct consequences in the scope and influence of those who had proven themselves to be courageous, compassionate, just, and generous.

In such economic systems, people honour the earth, they honour the living things, near and far, that their own future depends on, and the greatest happiness is found in the company of trusted companions. Not in possessions, not in the exercise of power over others, or the acquisition of symbolic wealth (money) based upon the destruction of real wealth (food, shelter, community, living ecosystems,).

People who were promenant in these communities were not wealthy, except in the trust of other people. They were the peace-makers, the truth tellers, and the moral examples that the young modelled themselves after. “Big men” and chiefs were not so much exercising power over others as they were exercising responsibility to others.

Let me give an example to show what I mean: I was interviewing households in an African village in Burkina Faso, on the subject of how much grain they had in store after harvest. Every one of them had cultivated more than they needed in order to contribute to the stores of the village headman. I then interviewed this headman, and he proudly showed me granary after granary.

He told me there was enough grain in store to feed the village through seven years of drought.

This was a moment of revelation for me. I had been thinking of him as a powerful and greedy man, who was enriching himself through his political position.

Suddenly I saw the man for what he was – an ethical, methodical, and diligent person striving to live up to the great responsibility entrusted to him. He had to constantly monitor those granaries, checking for damage by rot or vermin, and carefully assess all withdrawals from this common fund.

I looked at his household, the largest in the village, and discovered that it was large because he had taken in people who were disabled or ill or vulnerable due to age or other misfortune. It was from the chief’s stores that people got their safety net.

 Could this explain the sources deep within the human nature, which equate “moral” imperatives, courage, loyalty, compassion, justice, and generosity with imperatives to resist fascism, inequality, racism, and warfare?

When you see theories situating human evolution in a context of deadly competition and conflict between groups, a context of aggressive and stressful internal hierarchies, and contexts of individual motivations based on self-interest and “tribalism”, then you can be pretty sure that these theories are RATIONALIZING fascism, inequality, racism, and warfare. Such theories present inegalitarian and violent politics as a result of INNATE human nature. However, what if what we now call “politics” originated as an emergent property of something other than self-interest? Maybe we can even find some evolutionary context that explains our aversion to injustice and arrogance?

Patrick Clarkin writes: “…Stephanie Sloane and colleagues (2012) found that infants as young as 19-21 months old expected rewards to be equally distributed between two individuals. They stated that this was “consistent with recent speculations that a few sociomoral norms—evolved to facilitate positive interactions and cooperation within social groups—are innate and universal, though elaborated in various ways by cultures.” In other words, some building blocks for fairness may have been installed by natural selection to help smooth over some of the tensions inherent in social living. We can also see hints of these building blocks in other primate species.

Sarah Brosnan and Frans deWaal trained a group of capuchin monkeys to exchange a token for a reward, usually a slice of cucumber (Brosnan and deWaal, 2003). However, some monkeys were intentionally given a grape instead (a more desired food), and sometimes for no effort (without exchanging a token). Other monkeys who witnessed unfair rewards for their peers and were then offered the standard cucumber refused to further participate, wouldn’t eat the cucumbers, or threw them at the researchers…”

Most “complex” human societies (those with internal socio-economic stratification) actually appear to develop in response to the shift from positive to negative trophic flows within the subsistence economy. Their technology develops to offset the losses and the increased conflict resulting from this shift. For a particular group to become dominated by inequality, racism, and warfare, the ideas must have caught on for some reason. For example, if they had overpopulated their lands and begun to experience worsening living conditions and heightened risk, some people might find they can solve their problems by means of violent threats – thus extorting food from others.

On a larger scale, some communities might do this by organizing larger gangs to undertake predatory expansion – either through warfare (to subjugate) or by genocide – and b doing so, if successful, they can improve their own lives and reduce risk of famine. The former option (colonization and subjugation) is of course basically a protection racket – “we will take stuff off you as needed, but mostly will leave you alone to operate your business as long as you pay us off regularly” while the other is the standard operating procedure of expansion prescribed by the God of Abraham “We are going to kill all of you and drive you into the sea” and it essentially a replacement “we are taking over your whole business and we will kill you”.

The origin of these ideas is not mysterious. They originate in cultural systems that have begun to generate negative trophic flows in their ecosystem… in other words, they have cut down too many trees, cultivated too much land, and over-hunted too many species. This could have been due to meeting the subsistence needs of a generally rising population, but in most cases, it seems to have occured to meet the market demands generated by urbanization.  Growing cities represent concentrations of demand – for food and materials. Yet urban populations are relatively unproductive of food and raw materials.  So urbanization requires a vast hinterland… and increasing populations in urban areas requires expanding the hinterland from which such goods are drawn. Cropland must be increased to supply this demand, as must the size of livestock herds, the daily catch of fishing boats, and the number of trees cut down year by year.

Waves of deforestation and aggressive predatory expansion are the hallmarks of state formation throughout the archaeological record. State formation and the delicate process of eventually achieving “peace” among such entities is basically what world history consists of for the last few thousand years. As wild species extinction (faunal and floral) occurs, water tables drop, soil fertility declines and erosion worsens, the only alternative to increased mortality and collapse is to organize the society into a predatory war machine and this usually results in some kind of military elite.  This is usually a caste that raises their children steeped in games like chess and with familiarity with battle strategy and “leadership” behaviour. Academies like Westpoint are not new, nor is the concept of elites who are rewarded for planning and executing “campaigns” of violent domination over anyone who either threatens the polity, or disrupts the internal economy or trade routes, and deals with defence against any outside attacker with similar motivations.

I have lived with hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, and with minority tribal peoples in West Africa.. all these people were, of course, found now within some “state” society where the standard elite “ruled” . Until about 500 years ago the world still had “free” tribal and band level societies which were living with hunter-gatherer, slash and burn horticulture, or pastoral economic systems that WERE sustainable. They were generating positive trophic flows… the human presence actually created more ecosystem diversity and stability, not less. This is not to say that they were always peaceful: occasional outbreaks of fighting over grievances of various kinds has probably always occurred.

Tribal warfare tends to be – almost gleefully – fastened on by  as part of the ideology of state systems which rationalize both the threat of the “barbarian savage” and the superiority of the civilized denizen. People like Lawrence Keeley (“War Before Civilization”) and Steven Pinker who used Keeley’s tables (which, by the way, confounded homicide with organized war), have popularized this conventional narrative. People love this narrative unless and until they see through to the reality – that civilization is basically a protection racket that works to keep members safe as long as they subordinate themselves to the the authority of the bosses.

It takes  long time to realize  that economies based on intensive agriculture and continued “economic growth” are only possible due to the on-going destruction of wild ecosystems:  supporting urban centres in this way is fundamentally an end game. Unless such societies are able to restore positive trophic flows, their collapse in inevitable. As did many previous empires throughout history, European nations were able to put off collapse over the past 500 years by colonization (progressively usurping the energy and diversity) of those human societies that were still generating positive trophic flows.

This colonizing and flipping of whole ecological systems from positive to negative flows is on-going, and has so far overcome any resistance from the societies (indigenous populations in colonized regions who had horticultural, pastoral, and hunter-gatherer-based economies) previously supporting ecological diversity and large wild biomass.


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