Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Agricultural Revolution as Insurance

I forget whether I've mentioned listening to Harari's Sapiens, as an audiobook (Mr. Bezos is taking over the world).  It's slow going, not because it's not interesting or well-written, but because I'm only listening when I use my exercise bike, and these days I'm mostly able to get exercise in the garden or by walking. 

Anyway, he's discussing the agricultural revolution, adopting the stance of Jared Diamond and others that it was bad for individuals, because hunter-gatherers had less work to get their food than did the early farmers.  While agriculture meant a given area of land could support more people, which was good for the species, it meant harder work and misery for the individuals.  His explanation for the revolution is mostly materialistic, a gradual accumulation of changes resulting in domesticated grains and animals, each change seeming an advantage but the overall result was poor.  An alternative explanation is possibly religious, citing an example of great stone columns erected by a hunter-gatherer culture in the same area where einkorn wheat was domesticate.

One thing I think Harari misses is the influence of climate and the seasons.  One of the outstanding features of our staple grain crops is storability.  There are food items a hunter-gatherer can store: acorns, dried fish, dried grapes, etc., but in most cases these are limited.  Grains can be stored indefinitely.  While Harari emphasizes the variety of foods hunter-gatherers could obtain, I'm not convinced.  Checking the climate for Jericho, a place he mentions, there's big seasonal changes: a cold wet season and a hot dry season.  What that means to me (operating on logic with no knowledge of the facts of the area) is that the life of a hunter-gatherer is good half the year, not the other half.  So growing and storing grain for the dry season would be rewarding.  A store of wheat was insurance against the risk of starving during the hot, dry season.

No comments: