Plants & Animals: The “Worst Mistake”?

Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?, this was the comment page for two readings about plant and animal domestication in Intro-to-Anthropology 2016:

  • Chapter 7, “Why Did Humans Settle Down?”
  • “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” by Jared Diamond in Discover (1999)

For a 2021 update, see Auditioning Domestication:

This was the second part of an archaeology unit in an Introduction to Anthropology 2016 course. Rough notes below and then Disqus comments.

Agriculture, traditional view

Collecting (wild nature) –> Farming (culture & agriculture) –> Civilization
Jared Diamond’s Revisionism (I always like to show a clip from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell to illustrate the revisionist perspective).


Diet: Diverse, variety, more nutrients & protein
Average height: taller
Disease: Sparse populations, less opportunity to spread
Social structure: Relatively egalitarian, 12-19 hours/week of work, Relative sex equality
No standing army, total war


Diet: More carbs, monocropping
Heights crashed!
Agriculture & Starvation
Disease: Domesticated animals, dense populations, malaria
Social structure: Social stratification by class; More work, less leisure; Women as “beasts of burden“
War for territory
(and see the 2016 skeletal evidence from Bolivia, Ancient Skeletons Suggest Foraging Was Healthier Than Agriculture)

If so bad, why do it?

Diamond claims it is a need, not a choice
Population pressures
Trade quantity for quality
Adopt agriculture –> drive out others
Seductive blessing, still unrealized for many
[One of my most popular blog-posts is an analysis of Diamond’s Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race]

At this point, a clip from Guns, Germs & Steel (film version)

Look for importance of certain animals and plants in certain habitats = candidates for domestication
What would be the long-term consequences of these geographic differences?
Does the Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs & Steel (and the voiceover) sound like the Jared Diamond of “Worst Mistake”?
[Another of my most popular blog-posts analyzes the Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel]

Domesticating (Lavenda & Schultz:194)

Opening paths of human-plant-animal interaction
Changes in human-plant-animal relationships = co-evolution
I prefer this to ideas of interference and control
Humans may act deliberately, but hardly in control
Humans, plants and animals continue to interact with “wild” counterparts
Is not the moment when people go from being “natural” to “unnatural”
[I’ve posted about this as domestication opening Relational Pathways]

How did domestication occur?

Perhaps not altogether conscious, mutualism (Lavenda & Schultz:196)
But also conscious manipulation to encourage growth (197)
Importance of “beneficial” mutations (199)
Slow process, niche construction (195)
When did the Anthropocene begin?
1950 = Atomic Age
1750 = Industrial Revolution
10,000ya = Agriculture

Historical order of emergence

1. Scavenging
2. Gathering & Hunting
3. Horticulture
4. Agriculture
5. Pastoralism – emerges after agriculture, and always in relationships of trade with agricultural societies.

Why Domestication?

“one motor” ideas
But not a single cause or area (203)
The more we know the more complex it looks (204-208)
Not equivalent to sedentism (198)

Where? Who? (Lavenda & Schultz:201)

At least six separate sites of probable plant and animal domestication

“auditioning” (Lavenda & Schultz:209)

Curious temporal parallels of domestication episodes
But on closer examination archaeology
“downplays single-cause explanations of domestication . . . people appear to have been auditioning a wide variety of region-specific plants and animals for leading roles as domesticated resources. . . no evidence for population pressure during the 2000 years or so when plants were first being domesticated” (Zeder and Smith (2009)

What? & When?

Lavenda & Schultz:202

Consequences I (Lavenda & Schultz:210-213)

Population increase
Quantity for Quality
Diseases & Height

Consequences II

Domesticated crops back then are same things we eat in dining halls today
Our monocropped calories are mostly from [see Michael Pollan When a Crop Becomes King (2002)]

Differences in New World and Old World domestication patterns help explain major encounter in world history
Large animals for plowing, war
Disease vectors: is 1610 the beginning of the Anthropocene?
However, eventual importance of New World crops (see “The Food Revolution” box Lavenda & Schultz:212)

Consequences III

“provided new opportunities for social complexity” (Lavenda & Schultz:213)
Makes possible–but not inevitable–new forms of political control and state government:
Urban settlements, Public works, Writing, Monuments, Standing Armies

[image credit: Photo by John Doebley at the interesting “What plant genes tell us about crop domestication”]

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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