Episode 4 The Origins of Agriculture
The Big History of Civilizations
Craig G Benjamin (2016)
In this presentation, Benjamin offers an interesting perspective on a question that has long bothered me: why our hunter gatherer ancestors gave up foraging 12,000 years ago for agriculture. There is strong evidence that life was much easier for our nomadic ancestors before they took up farming. According to skeletal remains, hunter gatherers were better nourished, lived longer and had lower infant mortality and more leisure time. They were also free of all the viral epidemics domesticated animals have transmitted to us (measles, mumps, chickenpox, influenza, etc).
According to Benjamin, sudden global warming at the end of the last Ice Age (11,500 BCE) led to a big increase in the availability of food. This gave rise to what Benjamin refers to as “affluent foraging” cultures.* Food was so abundant that human beings in many regions abandoned nomadic lifestyles to establish permanent settlements. Benjamin believes this led our ancestors to abandon “natural” forms of population control (including infanticide and senicide*) that characterize nomadic hunter gatherers.
After a few generations, the sedentary affluent foraging cultures lost the skills essential for a successful nomadic lifestyle. Stressed by growing populations and scarce food resources, they were forced to produce their own by domesticating plants and animals. .
According to Benjamin, only 100 plants species and 14 animals species have proved suitable for domestication. The first domesticated plants were barley and emmer and enkorn wheat in Syria around 11,500 BCE. The first domesticated animal was the dog, somewhere between 23,000 and 15,000 years ago.
*The world’s first city, Jericho, was built by affluent foragers around 14,000 BCE.
**Senicide is the killing or abandonment of the elderly
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy