Agriculture: Jared Diamond’s Worst Mistake

Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Jared Diamond’s breakthrough 1987 article, “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” claims agriculture did not deliver the splendors of civilization but was instead a highway to hell. This section examines the traditional progressivist perspective on agriculture and the sources for Diamond’s revisionism, including passages that seem plagiarized from earlier anthropological work, especially from a book titled Man the Hunter.

This section is part of a series of pages on Archaeology and History. These pages detail an anthropological investigation of domestication, hunting-and-gathering, agriculture, and the rise of state government. It is impossible to consider these issues without tackling the writings of Jared Diamond, whose works on agriculture and its implications for modern life are very widely read.

Diamond’s initial article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” would enable him to become an authority on archaeology and world history, culminating in the writing of Guns, Germs, and Steel.

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For a 2022 attempt to explain these ideas in Intro-to-Anthropology, see this YouTube lecture:

Agriculture, Traditional View: Progressivist Watershed Moment

By around 15,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had spread to every major habitable landmass, as a single, inter-breeding species. There were no other significant populations of bipedal hominid species like Neandertals or Denisovans. People were in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

People lived from gathering and hunting. Around 15,000 years ago, in some parts of the world, this would change, as people began more intensively cultivating plants and herding animals. These processes are known as domestication or the transition to agriculture, conceived as a watershed moment in human history, the time when human history begins. Note the similar root words behind culture, agriculture, and cultivation.

According to dominant mythology, prior to cultivation, humans lived in a “wild man” state, not very different from the non-human animals they hunted. With domestication, humans tame and control these wild animals, and in the process begin to tame and control themselves.

Again, in the traditional view, agriculture makes possible craft-specialization, urban life, writing, and the state. Agriculture is the watershed moment when humans began taming themselves and controlling their environment, eventually leading to the splendor of civilization.

The traditional view reinforces some pretty vile feelings about fellow human beings. Although Charles Darwin sympathetically understood the continuum of humans with the natural world, he had some pretty nasty stuff to say about some of the people he met in Tierra del Fuego during his 1831-1836 Voyage of the Beagle:

The language of these people, according to our notions, scarcely deserves to be called articulate. . . . We have no reason to believe that they perform any sort of religious worship. . . . The different tribes have no government or chief. . . . They cannot know the feeling of having a home, and still less that of domestic affection. . . . Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals, for it is not improved by experience. (2001, 183, 191-2)

No religion, no government, no home, no domesticity, not even language or skills. For Darwin, and many others, the savage-primitive is closer to non-human animal than to civilized humans. As Tim Ingold comments:

Biologically, Darwin seems to be saying, these people are certainly human beings, they are of the same species as ourselves, yet in terms of their level of civilization they are so far from being human that their existence may justifiably be set on a par with that of the animals. (Ingold 2000, 65)

Not everyone agreed with Darwin, and there was a counter-tradition of celebrating the noble savage (see section on Anthropology and Human Nature). However, for the most part this evil-versus-noble debate shared the premises that agriculture led to free time and civilization.

A new perspective, a revisionist approach, emerged in the 1960s, questioning the benefits of agriculture. In “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond rhetorically overstated the case, pushing the revisionist line past its limits. First published in 1987 in Discover, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” remains famous and is still a staple for anthropology courses.

Writing with characteristic verve, Diamond’s “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” summarizes an impressive amount of material in just three pages. At the top of the second and third pages, he headlines the main point: “The adoption of agriculture, supposedly the decisive step to a better life, was in fact catastrophic. With agriculture came the curses of social and sexual inequality, disease, and despotism” (1987, 65-66).

Diamond drew on several sources for this revisionism:

a) Anthropologists re-evaluated gathering & hunting

Many anthropologists have worked with gatherers and hunters, but Richard Borshay Lee’s work with !Kung San in the Kalahari most challenged prevailing paradigms. Lee did not just live with the !Kung to learn their wisdom: he was an expert at weighing game, counting calories, and calculating work hours. Lee’s seminal article was What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to Make Out on Scarce Resources (1968), which has been re-titled for some anthropology readers as The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari. The titles are misleading. Lee actually changed ideas of these groups as exclusively hunters, empirically demonstrating the importance of gathering: “the basis of Bushman diet is derived from sources other than meat. . . . plant foods comprise over 60 per cent of the actual diet” (1968, 43). Lee also fought against the idea of scarce resources: “Life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short. The Dobe-area Bushmen live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of the fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushman peoples were formerly found” (1968, 43).

Diamond uses Lee for his very first piece of contrarian evidence:

It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Diamond 1987, 65)

The quote about mongongo nuts is directly from Lee’s article, but Diamond does not cite or mention Lee. As the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” continues to circulate, people now associate the quote more with Diamond than with Lee. However, it is a direct reference to Lee’s work. (See for example the 2009 BBC blog-post by Tom Feilden Do hunter-gatherers have it right? which mentions “one Kalahari Bushman quoted by Jared Diamond.”)

Much of “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” appears in Diamond’s book The Third Chimpanzee (1991). Here, Diamond again uses the quote about mongongo nuts, and again does not cite Lee. Diamond mentions Lee’s work one time, at the end, in a suggestion for “further readings.” Although such lack of citation might be somewhat excused in his shorter magazine article, it seems to border on unethical plagiarism in a longer book. As I point out below, Diamond borrows more from Lee and DeVore’s Man the Hunter than he acknowledges: he lifts some passages in Man the Hunter for “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”

Another prominent source exploring the implications of Lee’s work was “The Original Affluent Society” by Marshall Sahlins. This began as a conference comment on Lee’s work, later published as a more complete essay in Stone Age Economics (1972), a book that would be required reading for a generation of anthropologists. Sahlins placed anthropological research in a wider economic context, arguing hunters were affluent, not because of how much they had, but because of how little they needed: “There is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate” (1972, 2).

Lee and Sahlins, as later popularized but unacknowledged by Diamond, were fundamental for re-evaluating the idea of gatherers and hunters as barely scratching out an existence. Agriculture increased necessary work time and drudgery, although it did make possible specialization, so that not everyone had to be directly involved in procuring food. Some people could then specialize in other pursuits. But agriculture did not directly increase free time or leisure. (See Affluence Without Abundance for a 2017 in-depth ethnographic update.)

b) Historians document deprivation & management

Another angle for the revisionist perspective was the historical documentation of how much conditions had changed for gatherers and hunters. The people who were gathering and hunting when observed by anthropologists, or even by Charles Darwin, were often those pushed off their original lands, decimated by introduced diseases, forced into labor, or recruited to provide commodities, like for the fur trade.

Anthropologists like Lee and Sahlins already knew this, and said as much. Sahlins writes, “I must raise the possibility that the ethnography of hunters and gatherers is largely a record of incomplete cultures. Fragile cycles of ritual and exchange may have disappeared without trace, lost in the earliest stages of colonialism, when the intergroup relations they mediated were attacked and confounded” (1972, 38-39). Diamond also makes reference to the deprivation gatherers and hunters experienced, noting their lives “aren’t nasty and brutish, even though farmers have pushed them into some of the world’s worst real estate” (1987, 65), again condensing Lee’s wording.

Lee and Sahlins aimed to disprove stereotypes and capture what might have been. Anthropologist Eric Wolf was the one who really put the pieces together, exploring the history of encounter, interaction and mutual creation between what are called “tribes” and the emerging Western colonial powers. Wolf’s truly great work Europe and the People Without History (1982) drew the connection between anthropological case studies and historical process. The title is ironic: Wolf was bringing a sense of history to the people anthropologists study: “Europeans and Americans would never have encountered these supposed bearers of a pristine past if they had not encountered one another, in bloody fact, as Europe reached out to seize the resources and populations of the other continents” (1982, 18).

Wolf’s book remains important, especially since Wolf was writing world history long before the idea of “globalization” became fashionable. For more, see Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires.

In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005), Charles Mann pushes this approach. Mann opens with a chapter on “Holmberg’s Mistake” in reference to anthropologist Allan Holmberg’s 1940s studies of the Sirionó in South America:

The wandering people Holmberg traveled with in the forest had been hiding from their abusers. At some risk to himself, Holmberg tried to help them, but he never fully grasped that the people he saw as remnants from the Paleolithic Age were actually the persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture. It was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving. (2005, 10)

Mann’s work emphasizes how Native Americans were skilled managers of their ecosystems. Mann draws on historical studies that show how what European explorers saw as a natural “Garden of Eden” was actually a managed landscape. In North America, much of the management resulted from large-scale burning: “Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both” (2005, 282).

In the South American Amazon, we do not know exactly how people transformed the landscape, but it was not an untouched tropical forest. About the Amazon, Mann goes further: “For a long time clever people who knew tricks that we have yet to learn used big chunks of Amazonia nondestructively. Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they created it. They were in the midst of terra-forming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything” (2005, 349).

As Europeans displaced Native Americans, their landscapes degenerated, and non-human animal populations becoming dangerously unbalanced. The “Garden of Eden” was not that way because of untouched natural processes, but because of the unnoticed gardening skills of the native inhabitants. (See also Myths of the Spanish Conquest–Indigenous Allies and Politics of Empire for a reconsideration of these processes.)

c) Archaeologists did paleopathology

As Diamond’s “Worst Mistake” notes, archaeological techniques became more sophisticated, leading to studies in paleopathology. Diamond announces an astonishing result:

Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9″ for men, 5’ 5″ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3″ for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. (1987:66)

Since height can often be used as a proxy for health, it would appear adopting agriculture had a deleterious effect.

Diamond uses the Greece and Turkey skeletons, but again gives no reference. I have also seen this study used in introductory anthropology textbooks, but I have been unable to track it down, even as my students pointed out the lack of references for both Diamond and anthropology textbooks.

Update: See the comment below from Ivor Goodbody, who may have finally solved this mystery, and a link to Stature and robusticity during the agricultural transition: evidence from the bioarchaeological record (2011), which seems to confirm a general (although not universal) stature decline.

Diamond says the same result can be found in the Mississippi Mound burials, which offer literal layers of evidence for bodies before and after agriculture. Diamond here cites work by George Armelagos and colleagues showing a drastic decline in health and life expectancy on adopting maize-based agriculture. The title of the study, Death and Disease at Dr. Dickson’s Mounds (Goodman and Armelagos 1985) seems to say it all. Like “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” the “Death and Disease” article is a staple of introductory anthropology readers, including the 2012 edition of Applying Anthropology

d) The Third World could not be ignored

Linked to the historical documentation of tribal deprivation was the growing realization that it was impossible to write the history of development and industry in Europe and the United States without considering the exploitative relationships of colonialism and resource extraction.

The idea of economic development promoted in the 1950s was that each country was on its own path to development and only needed encouragement. W.W. Rostow’s influential book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto includes a chart which places Britain at the top and India at the bottom, each with its own arrow of development (1960). That India was a colony of Britain for several hundred years, that Britain used Indian textile techniques and copied designs to fuel its industrialism–apparently unimportant.

The idea of each country’s independent path to development was in desperate need of revision. André Gunder Frank’s Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America explicitly argued that many of these so-called backward regions were very much part of an extractive capitalist system (1967). Rather than bringing advancement and development, capitalism had made them backward. This idea became known as dependency theory and part of a critique of capitalist-style development:

There is the notable quip of Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?” responded, “It would be a good idea”
–Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World as We Know It, 1999, 174

Diamond knew any consideration of the benefits of agriculture had to consider the world as a whole, not just certain parts:

To people in rich countries like the U.S., it sounds ridiculous to extol the virtues of hunting and gathering. But Americans are an élite, dependent on oil and minerals that must often be imported from countries with poorer health and nutrition. If one could choose between being a peasant farmer in Ethiopia or a bushman gatherer in the Kalahari, which do you think would be the better choice? (1987, 66)

e) Feminists focused on untold inequalities

In the early 1970s, anthropology graduate student Gayle Rubin wrote The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex. Rubin’s article would for many years be one of the most cited articles in anthropology, and has been reprinted many times. The brilliance of Rubin’s argument was how she took existing anthropological accounts and simply exposed the injustices. When world-renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss portrayed the “exchange of women” as a source of “affective richness,” Rubin counters: “Why is he not, at this point, denouncing what kinship systems do to women, instead of presenting one of the greatest rip-offs of all time as the root of romance?” (1975, 201).

Rubin drew on an already-existing critique that agriculture was a source for sexual inequality, most clearly seen in Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Rubin’s injunction remains unfinished:

Eventually, someone will have to write a new version of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, recognizing the mutual interdependence of sexuality, economics, and politics without underestimating the full significance of each in human society. (Rubin 1975, 210)

Diamond likewise makes the connection, stating how “farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes” and how “women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden,” then launching into anecdotes from his bird-studying trips to New Guinea (1987, 66). Regardless of the political agenda of feminists like Rubin, such analysis made it less possible to describe social life without considering the implications for women and as Rubin put it, the “sex/gender system.”

Archaeology, traditionally a male-dominated profession, began to take issues of gender much more seriously. Heather Pringle’s article New Women of the Ice Age (1998), also featured in anthropology readers, provides an excellent example of how more sophisticated archaeological techniques, ethnographic analogy to new facts about the importance of gatherers, and a feminist orientation, have led to reinterpreting the famous “Venus figurines.”

f) People became nervous about a human future

Revisionists were perplexed and concerned about the possibility of human self-destruction. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pushing the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Pollution and environmental damage were literally choking urban areas. Population growth seemed unstoppable and unsustainable. The 1973 film Soylent Green expresses the dystopian pessimism of the time.

People like Richard Borshay Lee linked the issue of the destructive present to gathering and hunting sustainability. From the 1968 book Man the Hunter (obviously titled before the feminist critique!), Lee and Irven DeVore explicitly view their work through this lens. It is interesting here to compare Lee and DeVore’s introduction with Diamond’s conclusion:

Lee and DeVore in Man the Hunter (1968, 3)

To date, the hunting way of life has been the most successful and persistent adaptation man has ever achieved. Nor does this evaluation exclude the present precarious existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation and the population explosion. It is still an open question whether man will be able to survive the exceedingly complex and unstable ecological conditions he has created for himself. If he fails in this task, interplanetary archaeologists of the future will classify our planet as one in which a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology and society leading rapidly to extinction. On the other hand, if we succeed in establishing a sane and workable world order, the long evolution of man as a hunter in the past and the (hopefully) much longer era of technical civilization in the future will bracket an incredibly brief transitional phase of human history–a phase which included the rise of agriculture, animal domestication, tribes, states, cities, empires, nations, and the industrial revolution.

Diamond’s “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” (1987, 66)

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?

Lee & DeVore should have sued Jared Diamond for plagiarism. Or at least called him out on this borrowing.Click To Tweet
Lee and DeVore should have sued Diamond for plagiarism. And, as discussed in How Jared Diamond Distorts History, the fact that Diamond was not called on this borrowing allowed his work to supplant better and more accurate accounts. Nevertheless, Diamond puts the alternatives bluntly. Agriculture delivers the Splendors of Civilization. Or agriculture set us on the Highway to Hell.

But these are inaccurate alternatives. The next section on Many Ways of Gathering and Hunting discusses what really happened.

Next: 2.2 – Many Ways of Gathering and Hunting

Previous: 1.13 – Human Biologies and the Biocultural Naturenurtural

For more on Jared Diamond check the Diamond Tag. Also watch my 2017 interview on Diamond with Cosmoetica. For a 2022 attempt to explain these ideas in Intro-to-Anthropology, see this YouTube lecture:

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Agriculture as ‘Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’?” Living Anthropologically website, first posted 1 June 2011. Last updated 23 June 2022.

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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