The first human beings to inhabit the Earth existed in small, nomadic packs, wandering across hundreds of miles of land in search of sustenance in the form of animals and vegetation. Thousands of years later, humans have come to live in large settlements, and technological advances have granted us the convenience of supermarkets and restaurants from which we can purchase our food, rather than having to hunt for or gather it. The development of culture that led to such a significant shift in the way human beings live their lives was neither a chance interplay of events nor an instant transformation, but instead one important change that set off a cultural “domino effect,” leading to the current state of the human population. In shifting from hunter-gatherers to farmer-settlers through the advent of agriculture, humans set themselves on a course that would eventually lead to, among other things, increased existence of disease, creation of government, and the establishment of organized religion. These elements of civilized society, familiar to almost every human being alive today, are the result of cultural evolution that began with the establishment of agricultural society. As Paul Ehrlich put it, “…agriculture started a positive feedback system that put humanity on the road to sociopolitical complexity” (236).
Although it is unclear exactly why human beings abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the shift to agriculture brought about new technology that had an almost immediate impact on the life of the average human. First and foremost, agriculture led to a population boom. Rapid population growth can be attributed to not only increased but also replenishable food supplies, as well as higher fertility rates. Farmers had the ability to feed infants soft weaning foods that they had grown, a luxury unavailable to hunter-gatherers who were forced to feed infants via lactation for extended periods of time, which led to infertility (Ehrlich 236). Women were also able to wait less time between having children because their sedentary lifestyle meant they no longer needed to carry young children on long trips. The shift to agriculture also led to the development of new tools. In addition to tools already used for hunting and protection such as clubs and spears, the rise of agriculture necessitated the advent of tools that would specifically aid farming, such as rakes, hoes, and plows. Irrigation techniques were also developed to aid in the raising of crops. Another new technology that arose following the switch to agricultural lifestyle was the domestication of animals. Humans living in settlements learned to keep animals, both as pets and as sources of food.
Companionship and another source of sustenance were not the only thing domesticated animals gave to humans, however; it is well-documented that most human diseases can be traced back to animals, and that the close contact resulting from domestication led to the transfer of disease between species. Most epidemic illnesses, which are now solely confined to the human species, began as animal diseases: “The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history – smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera – are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals” (Diamond 197). Once humans contracted diseases from the animals they kept, the diseases were able to persist because of the close proximity of a large number of humans. Many humans living together and sharing a sedentary lifestyle also led to unhealthy conditions when feces entered the water supply, allowing for worms and other such parasites to infect a large number of humans (Ehrlich 237). Although general health among agricultural societies declined because of the rise of communicable diseases, the spread of illness was not entirely negative. Prolonged exposure to disease allowed humans living in agricultural societies to develop immunity. This benefited the agricultural populations in the long run, allowing them the ability to “wipe-out” hunter-gatherer populations they came into contact with, as evidenced by the devastating effect European germs had on Native Americans during the colonization of the Americas (Ehrlich 237).
The state is another aspect of culture that evolved from agricultural, settled societies. The origin of the state can best be described by the social philosophy of anthropologist Robert Carneiro, who does so through his theory or circumscription (Ehrlich 239). Carneiro’s thesis explained that “before a state system could evolve, something had to prevent future subjects from fleeing from their would-be ruler” (239). According to Carneiro, it is against human nature to allow oneself to be ruled, so certain barriers prevented human beings from resisting rule and leaving society to live on their own, under their own governance. These barriers fall into three categories of circumscription: geographic, resource, and social. Geographic circumscription explains how environmental barriers, such as mountain ranges, bodies of water, or deserts, limited the diffusion of agriculturists. Resource circumscription details how environmental quality differs in various places, so people were forced to stay in certain resource-rich areas. Social circumscription describes how other groups occupied the periphery of certain societies, limiting the possibility of expansion. These factors combined to stop humans from leaving certain societies in order to govern themselves, leading to their subjugation and the creation of the city-state. Anthropologists Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle described the formation of the state as “the culmination of humanity’s rapid post-agricultural trend away from being a small-group animal” (238). Practical concerns such as increased demand for food, as well as social pressures such as the desire for extended kinship, became voids in human existence that needed to be filled, and they were filled through the creation of the state. The evolution of the state had important consequences for the human population, which were both positive and negative. While art and education flourished in city-states, inter-community violence also was a direct result of the rise of competing states, leading to the advent of warfare (McKenna).
Yet another aspect of human culture that followed from the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agricultural society was organized religion. As the population grew and more people inhabited smaller spaces, the need arose for organization and structure within society; religion met this need. Religion brought a code of morality as well as a social order to human civilization, and it also justified the stance that some people should rule while others should be ruled (Ehrlich 256). The social hierarchy imposed by religion formed the basis for societal inequality throughout the course of history, some of which still exists in modern times (McKenna). But, like the advent of the state, there are also positive aspects to the creation of organized religion, such as the psychological comforts brought to human beings by their faith, and also the humanitarian efforts of many organized religions. The role of religion in society is more multi-dimensional than a simple institution of hierarchical structure. As Ehrlich claimed, “Religion has acquired many other roles in state societies, often, for instance, helping the poor and others who suffer the consequences of stratification. Sometimes it has supported the economic and political establishment and sometimes it has sought to overturn it …” (257). While religion may have been born from the need for structure and organization, it has evolved to become a much more multifaceted entity.
The “domino-effect” set into motion by the switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle brought about many technological advances that eventually led to a widespread change in culture. These major changes, which included the spread of disease, the creation of the city state, and the implementation of organized religion, all had both positive and negative consequences, but nonetheless were pivotal in shaping human culture as it exists today.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton & Co, 1997, chapter 11.
Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, chapters 9 and 11.
McKenna, Ryan. “The Reciprocal Influences of Culture and Technology.” http://fubini.swarthmore.edu/~ENVS2/S2007/rmckenn1/SecondEssay.htm
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