First Paper: The Development of Agriculture

Matt Klinman


Cast out of Eden:

The Progression of Humans from a Hunter-Gatherer to Agrarian Lifestyle

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
-Genesis 3:17-19.
God said these words to Adam before casting him and his wife out of the Garden of Eden. According to the bible, this is the exact moment when Homo sapiens moved from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian lifestyle. Anthropological evidence tells the story a little differently. As stated in Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World, the switch happened gradually and was based on the changing needs of humans in their environment. While different groups of humans on the planet made the progression from a nomad to settler at different times, the motivation to do so was uniformly rooted in overpopulation.
Certainly the case can be made that the motivations for the actions preceding Man’s expulsion from Eden were also rooted in overpopulation, after all, Adam was living just blissfully until Eve was created, but there is a more important and interesting comparison to be made between to two First Farmer stories. Preceding Adam and Eve’s drastic change in lifestyle was the act of original sin, a very profound change in the philosophy of the human race. I contend a similar change was occurring in the ethos of prehistoric humans as they changed from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. The change was manifested in their relationship to the environment and in the subsequent social structure that was created after agriculture. A developing value shift led to societies built on accommodating overpopulation by adapting the environment they lived in to their needs, rather than adapting to their environment. The question of what came first, the value shift or the problem of overpopulation is irrelevant, as both must have occurred simultaneously and over a long period of time. Unquestionably the development of agriculture and the simultaneous development of social society as we know it today represents a radical change in how human beings interacted with and viewed themselves in their natural environment.
Ponting says the shift happened roughly 10,000 years ago and with it began very rapid increases in human population and significant changes in human social structure. Preceding the development of agriculture the global human population was about four million. The population only grew by about a million between then and 5000 BC, but than began to skyrocket, reaching 200 million by 200 AD. Along with, and closely related to, this rise in population was the rapid development of a human culture and civilization. The development of agriculture was the foundation upon which these changes occurred (Ponting).
The idea that the evolution of a civilization based lifestyle is representative of a more specific change in the general human psyche is indicated by the development of our modern moral code, more specifically, a moral code that shuns infanticide and promotes overpopulation. An animal group that sets its group ethos by the environment it is in will develop behaviors that promote both the health of the members in the group and the health of the environment upon which they are dependent. With this comes the responsibility to not exhaust food sources beyond what is sustainable. Hunter-gatherer humans had to develop means of population control and infanticide was one of the most common. The accepted killing of twins, the handicapped and a proportion of female babies kept populations low enough to not overtax the resources in their environment.
At some point, however, humans moved away from this practice. Ponting explains that increasing population pressure just happened. Overpopulation simply couldn’t be avoided. If a group got too large it would split up and the new group would exploit a new territory. Eventually these groups simply ran out of space. More and more efficient means of extracting resources were required and the development of agriculture became a necessity. A small plot of land, which untended could feed perhaps ten people, if farmed, could produce a substantially larger amount of food. Also, with agriculture, a small number of people could produce sustenance for an entire community. This move to permanent spaces of residence and away from purposefully diminishing population is what started and was created by a profound change in how human beings began to see themselves in their environment. The development of agriculture was a necessity for this change in human ethos to occur, but the change in ethos was necessary for the development of agriculture. This blurring of causality is not a paradox, it is simply how the evolution of society must have occurred in very small steps over a long period of time, but nonetheless, a distinct change is obvious and present.
The change in social structure and everyday life style that occurred with the advent or agriculture and permanent society is remarkable. Where as before agriculture a hunter-gatherer group maintained very little social stratification, after agriculture it was an integral component of human society. With agriculture came the quantification of labor and a huge increase on the importance of possessions. In a bizarre twist, the profession that spurred this change, the farmer, became the lowest in status. Above the farmer was created a social hierarchy that was made possible simply because of the societies capacity to overproduce food. Food was never scarce for those who could produce a brand new commodity: wealth. Wealth is the ultimate manifestation of the ethos change that occurred in human beings when they transformed from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. Had the equality ethos of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle carried over, this hierarchical structure of society would not have emerged. There was a fundamental shift in human values, from a shift in the importance of leisure time to the importance of possession and wealth. Similarly, there was shift in how humans valued the environment in which they lived. More and more human beings relied on their ability to develop new technologies as a way of skirting over consumption problems, leading to a lifestyle that did not pay any heed to the sustainability of environment.
. In looking at the shift in human ethos due to overpopulation we can see human beings as having lived in two very different manners. The shift was by no means unnatural, indeed it was very necessary, but it does represent the point when human differentiated themselves from other creatures on earth as “the only animals to dominate and exploit every terrestrial ecosystem”(Ponting). One wonders if human beings could ever go back to the hunter-gatherer way of life, if that way of life was more “natural” and proper. According to Genesis, of course, man can never return to the Garden of Eden, he will be stuck outside of it forever as punishment. But of course, we then have to question a lot about the morals we have developed as a society now to judge if it truly was punishment. After all, Eve did eat from the Tree of Knowledge, a choice which, though damning, set a very important precedent concerning man’s use of his freewill.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/6/06