Early farming was only able to generate some 60% of what foraging (hunting and gathering) did, according to new research:
Samuel Bowles, Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging. PNAS, 2011. Pay per view (depending on world region and time).
AbstractDid foragers become farmers because cultivation of crops was simply a better way to make a living? If so, what is arguably the greatest ever revolution in human livelihoods is readily explained. To answer the question, I estimate the caloric returns per hour of labor devoted to foraging wild species and cultivating the cereals exploited by the first farmers, using data on foragers and land-abundant hand-tool farmers in the ethnographic and historical record, as well as archaeological evidence. A convincing answer must account not only for the work of foraging and cultivation but also for storage, processing, and other indirect labor, and for the costs associated with the delayed nature of agricultural production and the greater exposure to risk of those whose livelihoods depended on a few cultivars rather than a larger number of wild species. Notwithstanding the considerable uncertainty to which these estimates inevitably are subject, the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the productivity of the first farmers exceeded that of early Holocene foragers. Social and demographic aspects of farming, rather than its productivity, may have been essential to its emergence and spread. Prominent among these aspects may have been the contribution of farming to population growth and to military prowess, both promoting the spread of farming as a livelihood.
A news article is also available at PhysOrg.
Is the alternative explanation correct?
I find this discovery most interesting because the assumption has generally been that automatically farming was more productive than the old human way of life: foraging what Nature had to offer.
Yet this assumption did not explain why farming had not evolved earlier or why the, generally very pragmatic, peoples of the World, did not adopt it earlier, as they were no doubt aware of how gardening could be done.
It reminds me somewhat of the very much comparable misunderstanding on the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age: iron had by then been known for very long but it was brittle in comparison with bronze, quasi-bronze (copper and arsenicum) and even the old good flint stone. Actually I read somewhere recently that another good old friend of humankind, obsidian, makes such great blades that compete favorably with steel scalpels.
Things are not so simple: steel began to be developed (as sweet iron is not really good for most uses) after tin resources began to fail in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the communications with Atlantic Europe (where most tin mines were back then) may have collapsed when the two classical Iberian civilizations, El Argar and Zambujal (VNSP), did as well for reasons not well understood and not too relevant to discuss here.
It was therefore problems in the bronze industry, so critical for the military of the time, what pushed steel technology ahead, inaugurating the Iron Age.
|Seed milling was done long before Neolithic too|
Therefore I’d like to consider what may have caused people to adopt farming instead of just continue foraging, as they had done successfully until that time. We know that farming was preceded by a period we call Mesolithic and that is characterized by intensive foraging of wild cereals or other foraging behaviors that somehow announce the advent of farming or herding.
So, in the Fertile Crescent, there was for a time, since about the end of the Ice Age, a focus on a pre-farming type of foraging. As I have not read the paper yet, I do not know if Bowles has factored this period in his equations. As for me, I’d think that this kind of foraging (maybe already associated to some early gardening practices) we call Mesolithic, seems to respond to an ecological pressure of some sort, no doubt related to the then ongoing climate change.
Another issue I am pondering is that, even before cereal farming was fully developed in Palestine, herding of sheep and goat was adopted in Kurdistan, followed by cow herding in Anatolia (near the well-named Taurus mountains). Maybe herding had to be developed in order to make farming effective? Cattle (be it bovine or ovi-caprine) provides nutrients in form of manure and, goats specially but not only, can also be used to clear up wild vegetation areas, while pigs are great to plow the fields.
So I am wondering if animal domestication was a condition to make cereal (and pulse and flax) farming an economically effective way of life.
Honestly I prefer a true economic explanation rather than one based on very conjectural preferences about sedentarism, and this may be made up of:
- The push factor of climate change at the end of the Ice Age
- The pull factor of animal domestication, increasing the yields of agriculture until it became economically worthwile
What do you think?