AKA the Neolithic Revolution*

To start off, hunter-gatherers were not stupid; it is highly unlikely that humans did not know 'the secret of the seed' long before they started farming. No one knows exactly why they started farming, but it may have been due to population increase,** lack of wild edible foods, or just chance.

For whatever reason humans started doing it, they found that it was addictive. Farming allows for a larger population, in part because of the potential for increased food supply, and in part because you can have lots and lots of children. In hunter-gatherer populations, you have to carry young children around with you; this is a bad thing. In farming societies you don't; in fact, on the farm, children can be a benefit at around age five, helping out around the house (and, ironically, with child-care). It is also possible that lactation acts as a form of birth control; hunter-gatherers tend to breastfeed young children for the first couple years, because there is nothing else for them to eat. Farmers can often feed babies ground grain mush, freeing the mother from breastfeeding. This allows her to work on other tasks -- and perhaps makes her more fertile as a side effect.

A larger population may not have the option of going back to hunting-gathering, even if they wanted to, because the local ecosystem can't support the enlarged population without the added food gained from farming. After a few generations, they may start to forget the skills needed to survive as hunter-gatherers.

One cool side effect of settling down is the ability to own stuff. Hunter-gatherers have to carry all of their possessions, and so make do with as little as possible. For example, pottery tends to come along with farming; this is probably not a coincidence. Pottery is a simple enough idea, but it is heavy. Farmers also own land. Hunter-gatherers sometimes own land, but it is not so common and is less enforced as it tends to be in farming societies.

Once you have the idea of land ownership and a growing population, farming takes off -- you start working more land, you have more children, they start working more land, etc. Farming has appeared independently in multiple areas -- Asia, Africa, and the Americas, perhaps multiple times in each of these areas. While it may be slow to gain wildly spread acceptance, in the end it nearly always takes over.

Eventually you get all the trappings: governments, state societies, money, the working class and the nobility, etc. But long before you get to the level of modern day Europe and America, one fact stands out among all others: Farming stinks. The shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture has been called the greatest mistake the human race has ever made. Disease goes up, nutrition is degraded, death rates may hold steady enough in some cases, but it often sky-rockets. For example, all of Europe until the 1800s was pretty awful.

One problem with agriculture is that it limits the variety of foods available to a population. Foragers get food from many different plants and animals, and thus are more likely to get all of the vitamins and minerals that they need. Farming societies tend to have higher rates of goiter, pellagra, xerophthalmia, beriberi, tetany, rickets, anemia, and other deficiency diseases. Another problem is that crops fail, and when they do, people die. Hunter-gather societies tend to have many food sources to fall back on; this is true even in 'modern day' (i.e. last 50 years) hunter-gatherer societies, which live in the most marginal environments there are (the Kalahari Desert, sub-Arctic Canada). When farming was just beginning, hunter-gatherers probably lived in more friendly environments than they do now. We get another twist when trade networks pop up; there are many modern day examples of small farming populations trading nutritional foods needed for their good health to other populations in return for 'luxury' goods (or rent on their land, once real class societies get going).

This exacerbates another problem of farming societies: increased amounts of pathogenic diseases. Hunter-gatherer populations tend to leave their waste behind them when they move. Settled populations cannot do this. The waste tends to attract vermin (like rats and insects), which spread disease. Feces tend to carry parasites like tapeworm and hookworm (which in turn prevent humans from absorbing all the nutrients they need, and add to the deficiency diseases). This is often made worse when human waste is used as a fertilizer. With higher population concentrations, contagious diseases become a problem; in a large enough population, epidemic diseases can circulate. This doesn't happen in smaller populations, because after passing through a population once, diseases like measles and smallpox leave all hosts dead or immune to re-infection. If a large number of new hosts aren't entering the population (usually thru new births), the disease will have no one to infect, and it will die out.

And there are yet more problems with agriculture-based societies: domesticated animals can act as reservoirs for disease, and sometimes diseases of these animals will pass over into humans (the pox viruses and influenza are believed to have originated in domestic animals); since there is usually less breastfeeding, babies are more likely to get sick; changes in the environment may cause diseases, for example clearing rain forests makes new opportunities for the malaria-carrying mosquitoes to breed; and because there are so many opportunities for disease, any given individual may have a heavier burden (more parasites per person).

But even before modern medicine stepped in to save us, settled populations had some benefits, disease-wise. For example, settled populations are better able to take care of the sick, while hunter-gatherers travel around, which is hard on the sick. The movement of hunter-gatherers may have exposed them to multiple cases of diseases, in slightly different localized variations (analogious to traveler's diarrhea). Settled populations may also have a better chance to develop commensal bacteria loads, which help protect them from some diseases. But perhaps the most important effect of having a large settled population is that epidemics are very powerful weapons. If you have had an epidemic circulating through your population for a long time, most individuals will be immune to it (having had it once, probably while still young children). When you move into new areas, you bring the disease with you, killing large numbers of the unexposed populations. This was of great impact when Europeans came to the New World, and may have been significant on a smaller scale in the distant past. (This would probably not have been an issue until the event of state societies, because epidemics require 5,000 new individuals per year, at a low estimate, to propogate.)

At best, agriculture was a mixed blessing. For the past 10,000 years it has been making lives miserable. It was not until the last ~100 years that it paid off for large segments of any population. On the bright side, if the current trend continues, the next 10,000 years look like they'll be great.


* 'Neolithic revolution' is probably more accurate than 'agricultural revolution', because the agricultural revolution didn't start with agriculture, but with horticulture. Neolithic refers to stone age farmers who appeared here and there about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. But this refers only to European cultures; in the Americas, farming started in the Archaic and early Woodland cultures, about 1,000 to 9,000 years ago. The Mississippian period is when farming really took off in the Americas, 1,000 years ago. So there is some justification for calling it the agricultural revolution, if you are talking about farming in all parts of the world.

** While population growth does come with farming, there is a long standing debate about which came first -- do you farm because you have too many people to feed by other means, or do you have so many people because you farm?


For much more, Health and the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen is a good, if long, book.