Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

This article examines why humans shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture.  According to some the so-called “paleo diet” is the healthiest way to eat because our that is how our ancestors, going back to 300,000 years, ate and that is how genetically we have evolved to favor it.  Agriculture and its attendant diet only goes back some 10,000 years.  The article quotes Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn’s department of anthropology, as saying:

“A lot of evidence suggests domestication and agriculture doesn’t make much sense,” says Elic Weitzel, a Ph.D. student in UConn’s department of anthropology. “Hunter-gatherers are sometimes working fewer hours a day, their health is better, and their diets are more varied, so why would anyone switch over and start farming?”

One theory says that in times of plenty there was more time to work on domesticating plants.  The other theory is that times were bad and agriculture developed as a necessity to supplement the diet.  Weitzel tried to test both hypotheses by analyzing animal bones from several archeological sites and what they ate as well as pollen analysis of the detritus from the same human settlements.  His data provided evidence for the second hypothesis: There was some kind of imbalance between the growing human population and their resource base, effected perhaps by exploitation and also by climate change.

However this article calls into question some of the basic premises of the “paleo diet”, for example, do we even know what it actually was?  That article notes that for advocates of the palaeolithic lifestyle, life at this time is portrayed as a kind of biological paradise, with people living as evolution had designed them to: as genetically predetermined hunter-gatherers fit for their environment.  This seems to be highly romanticized as life in the Stone Age was probably harsh, with high infant and maternal mortality, and people very much at the mercy of the natural environment.  Seasonal shortages in food would have meant that starvation was common even despite the ability of hunter-gatherers to be highly mobile.

Weitzel notes that looking to the past and seeing how these populations coped and adapted to change can help inform what we should do as today’s climate warms in the coming decades.  He says, “Having an archaeological voice backed by this deep-time perspective in policy making is very important.”

What do you think the coming decades will mean for farming and our ability to feed people?

41 thoughts on “Food for thought: Why did we ever start farming?

  1. Yes, it was the discovery of beer that drove the development of permanent settlements. After all, you need a place to sleep it off…

    So, you know why God created whiskey? To keep the Irish from conquering the world.


  2. True enough. We are nearly all now gathered into permanent communities, but we have not yet, despite the 10,000 or so years we have had to experiment, learned to co-operate with one another. We need to try harder.


  3. With climate change, I’m sure the distribution of farmland will be altered. Our Great Plains may become too different to support the farming that goes on there at present. We will have to regulate our water use much more tightly, increase our ability to distribute what we grow to greatly reduce our food waste, and find different ways to farm that do not rely so much on climate. Hydroponics, maybe? Drip irrigation to reduce our water use? I’m worried that we’ll ignore the problems as long as possible–and longer, as with climate change itself–and face a very steep learning curve.


  4. Yeah, they are totally dependent on the non-Plain world for their livelihood, they just lead a different kind of lifestyle. Here in Lancaster County PA that couldn’t be more obvious.


  5. Once you are farming and have surplus food to store from season to season and year to year, it needs to be protected against raiders who would find it an attractive target. This means that both defensive and offensive warfare develop rapidly as technical skills once farming develops, and they become central not just to the survival but the flourishing and wealth of the community. Systematic warfare becomes one of the main occupations and activities of human beings.


  6. Another threat is not just human pandemics but also domestic animal pandemics that kill of livestock in large numbers (there is remarkably little genetic diversity in many of the major US breeds of cattle) and plant pandemics (the banana as we know it may disappear).

    As to the pre-Neolithic life style, life expectancy would vary from area to area. An analysis of Natufian burials (this is in the south Levant about 12,000 years ago) shows that life expectancy was short and but if you reached adulthood you had a 50/50 chance of reaching 30 (in other words the adult population would have included a lot of people over 30). has a bit about a Natufian burial of a ~45 year old woman who had congenital conditions that would have affected her gait and appearance. She also had a quite elaborate burial for that time and place.


  7. Agree, the hunger we see in the world today is not an Inputs problem.
    I suspect much of the hunger in the world’s future will be the same.


  8. Eating is very easy to change. Like Finn said, there’s still a lot of wiggle room between the precardiac diets most of us indulge in and abject starvation.

    Orthodox fasting is a Good Start, if you’ve never done it before.


  9. We have to start right now being satisfied with less. I know. good luck with that.

    The other thing is that any of us who have a patch of ground, or even some planter pots, can start growing food. Even producing your own salad greens would help. This is where Damaris’ blog, among others, is useful.

    And then we have to demand clean water and clean air, and find ways to incentivize corporate entities (and the Chinese) to care about that.



  10. You’re right about the waste. Grain prices for the farmer are pitiful right now. I don’t know all the causes of starvation in the world, but it is not a lack of grain. I tend to believe that the real causes of starvation are a lack of distribution, lack of infrastructure, and corrupt governments, not a lack of ability to produce the food.


  11. A lesson to all those non-Amish Christians whose ideal is a Pure CHRISTIAN(TM) bubble completely isolated from Those Heathens.


  12. See, I can’t even remember my name. There is no hope.
    I am going to retire and get my brain in order.
    9 hours sleep could improve my cognitive function.


  13. Correct. The Amish are intimately connected with the surrounding “Gentiles” – economically, socially, and (via clever loopholes) even technologically. Especially economically, both via agriculture and tourism.


  14. > Maybe we just go back to raising chickens and goats…A simple life

    I’ve done both.
    It is not “simple”

    > The Amish have the right idea

    The Amish disconnection from the modern networks all around them is a phantasm.


  15. The point is, we will have far too many people to feed at the levels to which we Westerners have become accustomed.


  16. Maybe we just go back to raising chickens and goats
    The Amish have the right idea
    A simple life
    I wish for a life just in communion with God.

    Other mundane events intervene.
    I hope God is patient and waits for me.



  17. Where are good American voters hiding ?
    Show yourselves and vote responsibly

    Yesterday I watched 90 minutes of farce


  18. 10 billion would mean a 30% increase from where we are now. For comparison, the world’s population more than *quadrupled* in the last century. So, the years of disruptive exponential population growth are already behind us.


  19. Many parts of the *developed* world.Still growing in much of Africa/MidEast/South Asia. And even factoring in an eventual peak, we’re still looking at the neighborhood of 8-10 billion.


  20. So, when did we start breeding pygmy goats? When we transitioned one of the worlds most useful animals into a novelty would tell us something.


  21. > increasing population

    Are you sure? That is approaching flat-line in many parts of the world. Given that humans are not particularly durable a flat-line becomes a dip pretty easily.

    > continued massive overfishing

    Yeah, the oceans are screwed. I feel confident we can already write them off the balance sheet.


  22. > Why did we start farming?

    I tend to believe it is because it allows people to live in permanent structures. Sleeping behind a wall and door, potentially with that behind a wall and a fence. Permanent settlement also allows the stock-piling of fuel, fuel enables craftsmanship and technology.

    The different between sleeping on the ground every night vs. having even a primitive cot to sleep on; this cannot be underestimated IMO.

    Also weather… roof?

    Additionally it had to be a lot easier to keep the elderly around in a permanent settlement. Meaning you get the benefit of their knowledge for longer.


  23. Why did we ever start farming?
    So to give the city kids a place to go on field trips of course. Duh.


  24. Why did we start farming? We discovered beer, that’s why…

    That’s the happy part of my comment. Now for the bad…

    “What do you think the coming decades will mean for farming and our ability to feed people?”

    The coming decades will bring (in no particular order), climate change and extreme weather impacting crop yields, increasing population, likely declines in the most used fertilizers, and continued massive overfishing. IOW, tighten your belts, Horseman Number Three is saddling up.


  25. > What do you think the coming decades will mean for farming and our ability to feed people?

    Humans are extremely clever, we have excellent tools, and we have libraries. Additionally we have lots of infrastructure that is resilient and efficient [principally railroads and elevators].

    Different regions will likely experience things very differently depending on their ability to lean on those four assets – for the entire spectrum of reasons they may or may not be able to do so.

    I am very skeptical of sweeping aggregations in discussions of these topics.

    Perhaps some corners of the world will resolve their still increasing obesity epidemic – because calories are not generally the problem. We by some measures produce multiple times the amount of food which is necessary; the scale of the waste is phenomenal.


  26. Really? You kid me not?
    Robert where are you?
    Not where I am or maybe I am mistaken
    So much hinges on something or someone who shows a seance of normality .

    Call me a new call maker.
    Such joy is beyond our manufacturing.

    The angels weep. They thought they heralded the Messiah.
    I have limited voice but I wish I could sing with the angels.
    My grandsons angel is St Michael. Celebred this week.
    I feel nereft that our blog is closing.
    I do not show blamed just such dissapoint.
    How do we continue.


  27. What do you think the coming decades will mean for farming and our ability to feed people?

    I’m having major trouble thinking beyond the coming weeks.


  28. “Who in the hell do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are…”

    — John Lennon, “Instant Karma”


  29. This seems to be highly romanticized as life in the Stone Age was probably harsh, with high infant and maternal mortality, and people very much at the mercy of the natural environment.

    “Rubbing your skin raw with rocks. Dying of old age at 27. Crying in terror when it starts to thunder. And these are all the things our ancestors did… Every woman and every man is a star in the sky.”
    — Fluffbunny Wiccan interview on GTA:Vice City talk radio


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