World History 1 26 - 2.3.2 How Farming Changed the Human Experience

As the example of the Indigenous people of Australia proves, agriculture was not readily adopted by everyone exposed to it. This may seem strange to us, living in a world made possible by agriculture. But we’re largely removed from the sometimes-painful transition many of our distant ancestors made. Consider, for example, the loss in leisure time. Scholars who study modern hunter-gatherers have found that the time required to acquire enough food to live amounts to about twenty hours per week. However, comparable agricultural societies spend thirty or more hours engaged in farming. That means less time for resting, sharing knowledge, and undertaking activities that bring more joy than hard work does. These same studies have also noted that the greatest loss in leisure hours was borne by women, who spent far more time engaged in laborious tasks outside the home than hunter-gatherer women in similar environments.

Large groups living in agricultural communities were also more vulnerable to epidemic diseases, which became common in areas that collected large amounts of human and animal waste. They were far more dependent on the weather as well; their crops needed to receive the water they required but no more. Unlike hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists couldn’t easily migrate to areas with more suitable weather conditions. Farmers also had a less-diverse diet than hunter-gatherers, made up mostly of one or two staple crops, usually starchy carbohydrates. While domesticated animals were available to farmers, meat consumption among Neolithic communities was significantly lower than among hunter-gatherers. Relying on a limited variety of food sources could result in mineral and vitamin deficiencies. But the advantages are also plain to see. Agriculture allowed for much larger populations. That meant more workers producing more food and more people to defend the settlement. When functioning well, agriculture created a constant supply of food and even a surplus that could be stored.

As early humans left their hunter-gatherer existence behind beginning around twelve thousand years ago, they also drifted away from the egalitarianism it fostered because agriculture required labor specialization in a way that hunting and gathering did not. Farming a field of wheat, for example, required a family to devote their energy to that process and associated chores, leaving little time for the diversity of tasks common among hunter-gatherers. And as agriculture became more sophisticated, such as by incorporating plows and domesticated animals to pull them, some successful farmers were able to produce surpluses that allowed them to accumulate wealth in the form of material property and land. This wealth, and the higher social status that went with it, were left for their descendants to inherit, strengthening social divisions between the well-off and others. For example, if food was plentiful, not everyone needed to farm, allowing some to become artisans or traders, who generated more wealth.

Some people were able to specialize in ways that freed them entirely from the need to focus on food production. They became traders, stoneworkers, religious leaders, and other types of elites. Those who acquired considerable wealth became leaders with the authority to command armies and create rules for society. Those without wealth could expect a life of difficult toil if they were lucky, and a life of bondage if they were not. Within the social tiers made possible by the spread of agriculture, new divisions defined by sex emerged. Among hunter-gatherer societies, women commonly gathered while men commonly hunted. But in agricultural societies, it was the men who typically worked among the crops in the fields. The need for strength to control the plow was likely one of the factors that contributed to this development. Women were relegated to the domestic sphere and spent their time preparing food, making pottery, and weaving cloth. Being less tied to the home, men had opportunities for leadership in society that women did not. They also thus had responsibilities women did not, including dangerous duties like fighting and dying to defend the settlement.

At home, women undertook the difficult and time-consuming work of milling grains. Originally done simply with mortars and pestles, this task evolved along with the rise in agricultural production to include the use of larger stone tools. Operating these mills required many long hours kneeling on the ground and bending over the millstones. It was also in the home that wool sheared from domesticated sheep was spun into thread and woven into cloth. Such chores were in addition to the labor of giving birth, rearing children, and preparing food.

Agriculture also had a huge effect on religious practices. The division of labor and the increased specialization it brought allowed for the emergence of highly defined priestly classes in many places. These religious elites derived their authority from their ability to interpret the intentions of the supernatural world, a quality that was highly prized. As a result, they could control material and human resources, which were put to work constructing sometimes elaborate monuments and performing highly choreographed rituals. Religions themselves became more intricate as well as qualitatively different. Pre-agricultural societies had tended to practice varieties of animism, seeing elements of spirituality in a great many ordinary things and animals. They had a keen interest in communing with the supernatural, often through shamanic and other rituals. Communities that experienced the Neolithic Revolution, however, developed a focus on agricultural fertility and on deities who could intervene for humanity’s benefit by encouraging this fertility and perpetuating the important cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

The Past Meets the Present

Domesticating Humans?

The process of plant and animal domestication is often seen as a one-way street, with humans orchestrating the process while staying relatively unchanged. But it may also be the case that humans transformed, or domesticated, themselves in order to develop populations most suitable for the agricultural lifestyle. Some have argued that the adoption of agriculture encouraged humans to select and reproduce traits that would produce the most advantages, such as docility and cooperativeness. The fact that modern humans are far less aggressive and more cooperative than we were tens of thousands of years ago appears to support the conclusion that we adapted ourselves.

And as some such as Michael Pollan have suggested, edible plants themselves exerted pressures on us we didn’t quite recognize. Just over twelve thousand years ago, for example, wheat was merely one wild edible plant among many found in the Near East. Today it is grown around the world (Figure 2.21). This incredible success was made possible by humans, who labored to remove rocks from the fields, bring water, remove insects, and work from dawn to dusk to ensure wheat’s survival and success. These costs borne by humans have redounded to the great benefit of wheat. Did we domesticate wheat, or did it domesticate us?

A picture of a wheat field is shown in front of mountains with the sun setting on a yellow and orange background. The wheat is brown and has pear-shaped kernels at the top bunched together in long strands with thin sticks poking out all over.
Figure 2.21 Human labor helped make wheat one of the most successful plants in the world. Did agriculture in turn encourage humans to select for advantageous traits like cooperativeness? (credit: Sunset over the wheat field featured” by “Dreamy Pixel”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)
  • How does the theory of human domestication affect your understanding of our relationship with agriculture?
  • In what other ways do you think agriculture may have brought about human domestication?
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax