Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

Miserable Early Farming and Parallels to Modern Life

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” When we tell a basic story of humanity, we imagine early hunter-gatherer humans as cold, scared, dumb, and barely surviving as they foraged through forests in search of mushrooms and prey. The story has these people then evolve into smarter farmers who work hard in fields, but have nice warm shelters and a happy family before eventually evolving into our modern city living, car driving humans. This overly simplified story, unexpectedly, is off with regard to the experiences of early foragers and farmers, and I think there is a lesson we can see in our own lives in the modern world.
The first thing to recognize is that farming is hard, and was especially hard for the first humans to truly settle into an agricultural lifestyle. It was not a guarantee that farming and agriculture would be the best way for humans to live for continued survival and the future evolution of the species. However, that is what happened. Harari asks why this became the path of human evolution and social growth took given that farming is miserable, barely produced sufficient food at first, and left early humans dependent on a single crop. His answer generally tends to be the cooperative benefits and safety that agricultural communities offered to humans, even if it ruined every other aspect of their lives. “Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease,” Harari writes.
Humans had evolved over tens of thousands of years to be great foragers. We have not evolved for the same period of time to be great farmers. Farming was incredibly difficult work from the start, and it made people’s lives as a whole worse off at the individual level while increasing the wellbeing of a select few and ultimately raising the potential of humans as a collective. In some ways, this doesn’t feel too different from modern society. There are still those who farm and those who are working in awful situations (think of the Dirty Jobs tv show) so the rest of us can live clean and leisurely lifestyles. Some of us are the equivalent of the first humans to begin farming, while others of us are the equivalent of the foragers who stuck to their adventurous lifestyle rather than adopting an agrarian life, and still others are like the ones who reaped the benefits of the agrarian society without having to do the farming themselves. For me, thinking about the history of humanity and the parallels between the modern world and the world of our ancestors helps me think about how I want to live and how many before me have lived.
Surely, whichever path I choose can be defensible based on how humans of the past chose to live and how our species evolved. Do I feel that I can’t be tied down to a particular spot and job? No problem, even while agrarian societies were getting their foothold, foraging continued to be a better lifestyle than farming, its only natural that I would be the modern day equivalent. Do I feel that I need to work hard and produce something meaningful for myself and all of society, even though all that hard work sucks? Sure, that’s only natural, look at all the humans who settled in communities to begin farming and change the direction of human evolution. And do I feel like I should be able to enjoy the benefits of hard work by making smart decisions and setting myself up well to enjoy life even though I’m dependent on the work of others? Well, that’s natural too, just look at the people who became leaders in agrarian communities without doing the farming themselves. The point is that we don’t necessarily have to defend our decisions and lifestyles as being ‘natural’, or as the ‘best way for people to live’, or as anything other than how we are choosing to live now. There is a huge range of possible ways of life, and it’s not always clear what is going to lead to the most flourishing for humanity or the greatest chance of evolutionary success. As Harari notes, farming was not a clear path toward successful genetic continuation for the first agrarian humans, but it worked out. Before them foragers drove human evolution in small tribes for a hundred thousand years. It’s not clear exactly where we are headed, but there are lots of ways to try to get there.
Nutritional Downgrading

Nutritional Downgrading

Foraging didn’t provide ancient humans with a great abundance of food, but in many ways foragers likely had better diets than humans living in early agricultural societies. This idea doesn’t seem intuitive, but Yuval Noah Harari explains why it is likely to be true in his book Sapiens. He writes, “The typical peasant in traditional China ate rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. If she was lucky, she could expect to eat the same on the following day. By contrast, ancient foragers regularly ate dozens of different foodstuffs.”
It is tempting to think that foragers gave up their nomadic lifestyle in favor of an agrarian lifestyle because mastering agriculture provided more, and better, food. This was not the case for many ancient (and not so ancient) humans. Moving to an agrarian system could provide a surplus of some foods, which did provide more food security in some instances, but often decreased the quality of diet compared with the diets of foragers. Ancient foragers could find many different foodstuffs, from nuts, to berries, to edible roots, to small animals and bugs. Knowledge was passed along about what foodstuffs could be eaten and where foodstuffs could be found. Different things were eaten at different times of the year, based on what was blooming, what animals were around, and what the weather was like. Foragers didn’t have a ton of surplus food, but their diets were pretty varied and pretty nutritious overall.
When humans moved into agrarian societies, they often began cultivating just a single food item, like wheat or rice. Successful farming could ensure a good harvest and a surplus of the staple crop for the individual farmer, their household, and potentially others in the village cropping up around the crops. But a huge amount of work went into cultivating a single crop, and this meant that diets were not varied and that people were at risk if a harvest didn’t turn out as expected. Contrasting this to foragers again, Harari writes, “by not being dependent on any single kind of food, [foragers] were less liable to suffer when one particular food source failed.” Ancient peasants lost the knowledge of where and how to find edible foodstuffs, and how to safely prepare those items at different times of the year. This meant they were dependent on a surplus of a single crop to get them through.
Additionally, relying on a single crop meant that foragers who became farmers gave up the interesting diet of a hunter-gatherer. Ancient humans traded a nutritious but slim diet for a more bountiful but less nutritious and less varied diet. Without eating all the fruit, nuts, roots, and other foodstuffs that provided vital nutrients, nutritional diseases were more likely to pop up in agricultural societies dependent on a single crop. Eating just rice, just wheat, or a slim variety of foods likely meant that important vitamins and minerals were missing from ancient farming diets. Ultimately, humans figured this out and found a way to master their diets, but early humans were not exactly at a nutritional advantage by shifting to agriculture.