Using the textbook Anthropology: What does it mean to be human? for Intro-to-Anthropology 2018 there were two readings on domesticating:

  • “Why Did Humans Settle Down, Build Cities?” (references below are to the 4th edition)
  • “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” by Jared Diamond in Discover (1987)

This material was for Intro to Anthropology 2018. In 2021, see Auditioning Domestication for the latest version of this material.

Agriculture, traditional view

In the previous class on Archaeology and Figurines, we tried to deal with the traditional stereotype that “Man the Hunter” is the prime mover of human history. In this class, we first begin with another related and traditional idea, which was that before the domestication of plants, people lived by collecting from wild nature, and that this corresponds to a wild or natural state of human beings. With the advent of farming, there is a belief in progression, and the root words of culture, agriculture, and cultivation are all related because it is assumed that being cultured is part of cultivating. Finally, this leads to the progress of modern civilization

Jared Diamond’s “Worst Mistake” from 1987 is the summary of a Revisionist argument. It is meant to shake our assumption of progress and argue that with agriculture everything went to Hell. (I sometimes like to show a clip from AC/DC’s Highway to Hell to illustrate the revisionist perspective).

Diamond on Gathering-Hunting

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

Diamond on Farming

Diet: More carbohydrates and monocropping.
Average height, a proxy for nutrition and health, becomes shorter (and see the 2016 skeletal evidence from Bolivia, Ancient Skeletons Suggest Foraging Was Healthier Than Agriculture).
Agriculture also leads to famines and 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.

If agriculture is so bad, why do it?

Diamond claims agriculture was a need, not a choice. The idea is that population pressures forced humans to seek quantity and trade away quality. Then, those who adopted agriculture drove out the others. For Diamond, this is a seductive blessing, which is still unrealized for many people around the world. It’s an argument that still gets people animated and commenting on Diamond’s 1987 article as if it were published today. [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)

We looked for

  • The importance of certain animals and plants in certain habitats, as 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 more popular blog-posts analyzes the Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs, and Steel.]

Domesticating (Lavenda & Schultz, 202)

Domestication opens new paths of human-plant-animal interaction. These changes in human-plant-animal relationships then become part of a co-evolutionary process. I prefer this to ideas of “interference” and “control.” Humans may act deliberately, but are hardly in control of the process. Also, humans, plants and animals continue to interact with “wild” counterparts, and there are great examples of domesticates which have then “gone wild.” Finally, we should not think that this is a moment when people go from being “natural” to “unnatural.” People are still part of the natural world and are not “interfering” with nature.

How did domestication occur?

Domestication may not have been altogether conscious, and so mutualism is an important idea (Lavenda & Schultz, 204). However, people in the past were also sophisticated and had knowledge of their environments. They certainly tried conscious manipulation to encourage growth (204). Here, the importance of “beneficial” mutations (Lavenda & Schultz, 207) becomes critical, as the mutations that might be favorable for domestication would not have been adaptive in other environments.

Perhaps the most exciting research on domestication is that which is considering domestication as niche construction (Lavenda & Schultz, 204-205). Melinda Zeder’s work on Domestication as a model system for the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis emphasizes the role of niche construction and relates to what we read about from Agustin Fuentes on the Human Niche.

Historical order of emergence

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

Why Domestication?

Although our studies of agriculture in the Middle East once led to “one motor” ideas, we now know there is not a single cause or area of domestication (212). The more we know about the Middle East, the more complex it looks. It is also important to note that domestication is not equivalent to sedentism (206), and that sedentism usually precedes domestication.

Where? Who? (Lavenda & Schultz, 209)

Lavenda and Schultz document seven separate sites of plant and animal domestication, all of which occurred independently. Melinda Zeder’s 2017 research posits 15 areas.

“auditioning” (Lavenda & Schultz, 217)

One of the more interesting ideas about domestication is somewhat hidden in the Lavenda and Schultz textbook. Despite some curious temporal parallels in when these domestication events occurred, archaeology “downplays single-cause explanations of domestication” (Lavenda & Schultz, 217). Instead, “people appear to have been auditioning a wide variety of region-specific plants and animals for leading roles as domesticated resources” (Zeder & Smith 2009 in Lavenda & Schultz, 217). Moreover–and quite amazingly–there is “no evidence for population pressure during the 2000 years or so when plants were first being domesticated” (Lavenda & Schultz, 218).

Consequences I (Lavenda & Schultz, 218-19)

In this section, Lavenda and Schultz take us through some of the issues raised by the Jared Diamond article, including the increase in population increase, seeking quantity instead of quality, increased labor demands, the decline in height, and diseases.

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. In Europe there were large animals for plowing and for war. There are also differential disease vectors–see is 1610 the beginning of the Anthropocene?

However, New World crops would eventually play a huge role in human history (see “The Food Revolution” box Lavenda & Schultz, 221).

Consequences III

Domestication and agriculture “provided new opportunities for social complexity” (Lavenda & Schultz, 221). This makes possible–but not inevitable–new forms of political control and state government: Urban settlements, Public works, Writing, Monuments, Standing Armies. This is the subject of the next class on Social Complexity and States.

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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