In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
It looks like from here forward I’ll only need one essay per chapter. Chapter 6 is about agriculture, the ‘revolution that never happened’.
Ethnographers living with foraging bands (and analysts crunching numbers) have long established that foragers understand farming perfectly well (since they are experts in plants) but generally refuse to take it up because foraging is actually a lot less labor-intensive and more reliable than farming and foragers are generally happier and healthier. So this realization has raised the question ever since of, Why the hell did humans ever take up farming?
The Davids begin the chapter with a vague description of the Greek ‘Cult of Adonis’ which was a series of rites practiced by Athenian women on the roofs of their houses. It’s kind of a weird aside since so little is known about the practice. Then they discuss Catalhoyuk, an archaeological site in Turkey, and one candidate for ‘the world’s oldest town.’ Catalhoyuk’s wall-mounted ox-skulls and figurines of seated women, once assumed to be earliest domestic cattle and Mother Goddesses, are now known to be skulls of wild cattle and who-knows-what. The people who lived in Catalhoyuk depended for food on domesticated plants and animals, but their religious art (if it is religious) doesn’t reflect this.
The Davids use the female figurines to discuss ‘matriarchy.’ The chapter would be better served by just pointing out that ‘matriarchy’ and ‘patriarchy’ aren’t really terms most anthropologists use since they don’t convey much. Terms that anthropologists do use are stuff like matrilocal and patrilocal: do married couples usually reside nearer the wife’s family or the husbands? Matrilineal and patrilineal refer to whether descent is traced through only the mother’s or father’s line. Americans today are bilateral. Both my father’s and mother’s ancestors are mine. But if you were, say, a 17th-century Powhattan at time of the English arrival to Virginia your father’s great-grandparents would not be related to you since the Powhattan were matrilineal. (Or so we think) The Powhattan were ruled then by male ‘werowances’ so you see that matrilineal doesn’t mean ‘matriarchal.’ [In matrilineal societies fathers often act more like traditional uncles in Anglo-American culture (fun, accessible, come-and-go) while the maternal uncle (the sister’s oldest brother) takes the role that Anglo-American cultures traditionally expect of fathers (authority figure, provider, stern). That’s a generalization but it can open your eyes to how different cultures can view family roles.] But the Davids don’t go into this. Instead they go into Matilda Joslyn Gage and Marija Gimbutas.
Matilda Joslyn Gage was a prominent 19th century American suffragist and the mother-in-law of L Frank Baum (who wrote the Oz books). The Davids say she posited the existence of a universal primordial Matriarchate which they equate with Victorian notions of stone age Venuses. Also there’s an odd, interesting side note on a certain Otto Gross who gave Carl Jung the notion of the collective unconscious (I did not know this.) and also believed in some sort of primorial matriarchy.
Marija Gimbutas got more concrete. She was an archaeologist and anthropologist in the mid-20th century who wrote books postulating that early farmers of ‘Old Europe’ were peaceful matriarchies until conquered by warrior patriarchies of cattle herders speaking Indo-European languages that came to dominate Europe. I encountered this idea when I was studying anthropology but I remember it as being already passe in those circles. However, her ideas were very popular in New Age circles. The Davids naturally love to go into the overthinking, mistakes, and overreacting and should-we-dismiss-this-out-of-hand stuff but it’s pretty pointless and irritating.
Eventually they segue into the importance of women’s crafts. Weaving and braiding is represented in those figurines at Catalhoyuk and the need for medicine, cordage, and weaving materials may have influenced agriculture more than the desire for edible grain. But while they make some points in this regard it’s all too disjointed. With their entire agricultural discussion the Davids are too addicted to pointing out how wrong other people have been. A better and much simpler account for the origin of agriculture is presented by James Scott in Against the Grain. So I’m going to spare you the slog and give you the info in a more coherent form:
Why the hell did humans ever take up farming?
Eventually, agriculture might get you geometry, writing, metallurgy, etc. But thousands of years elapsed between the first farmers and any of these, so we know neolithic villagers weren’t thinking, Hey lets spend decades improving plant yields so our distant descendants can write poetry in cuneiform. The basic theories of why people would have taken us something so labor intensive as agriculture, at least the ones that I know haven’t been disproved, are:
1. They had to because gradual population increase across the planet eventually led foragers to supplement foraging with farming in areas where it was easiest to do or where population was most trapped.
2. They had to because climate change at the end of the last ice age left populations that had been sustainable to suddenly need to supplement foraging with farming.
3. Villages used seeds and animals for trade gradually leading to domesticity.* (This comes from Jane Jacobs and I’m not going to discuss it more except for the footnote below.)
However they started farming, early farmers weren’t trapped. For several thousand years populations in various places farmed some without being dependent on it.
What about the how? How did they get from wild grains to domesticate grains. It seems that most of the earliest farmers were using some sort of flood water farming. If you plant seeds right after a flood those crops will grow before the weeds get to them so you don’t to weed. That makes farming not very labor-intensive at all. Just scatter seed after a flood and you get food, cordage, medicinal plants, and a clearing of wild grains to feed herbivores that you can then hunt. So village-dwelling foragers would collect seeds of wild grasses and store them not to eat but to plant. When collecting a bundle of wild grasses they would only harvest stalks that were ripe and not too tough. They’d end up with bundles of plants that all ripened at the same time. As they carried bundles back to their camp or village the looser kernels would fall off so only kernels that stuck to the head would survive to be replanted. At home the stalks would be swatted to remove the kernels for storage in a bag so that the rest of the plant could be used as straw. After the annual floods the bag of kernels would be brought down to the new soil and planted. Such plants would lack all natural competition from weeds and thus prosper. As a side effect the plant ends up a grain in which all plants ripen at the same time, the stalks aren’t too tough to scythe, the kernels don’t fall too easily off the head while being harvested, but do fall off the head easily enough later when being threshed. That’s why wheat is wheat. Some process like that or some other ‘accidental’ process is a likely origin of most domesticated plants.
The Davids don’t go into this all in detail but they do center early agriculture on floodplain farming. They postulate that hunters and early farmers interacted with one another in ways that changed how they defined themselves in opposition to one another; Thus the people of Gobekli Tepe may have became more fixed on hunting as a distinction from neighboring agriculturalists and this could have led them into aggressive hunting of humans.
The Davids summarize with the observation that there was no agricultural ‘revolution’ and that agriculture is not a trap (as people like me often think of it) since early farmers could go in and out of it for thousands of years. They close with this:
“All this raises an obvious question: if the adoption of farming actually set humanity, or some small part of it, on a course away from violent domination, what went wrong?”
*Possibility #3 come from Jane Jacobs in her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations (or maybe Economy of Cities. Too lazy to look up.) and I’ve never heard it discussed so far as I know among anthropologists or anyone else. The specific process described by Jacobs doesn’t really work IMO, but something like it and the general role of villages in influencing how humans live is worth a lot more thought.
Next Chapter 7: The Ecology of Freedom