10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution

Khalid Elhassan - July 31, 2018

About 12,000 years ago, some humans took up agriculture – animal husbandry, followed soon thereafter by farming – instead of traditional hunter gathering. That triggered such a radical change in society and how humans lived that it came to be known as the “Agricultural Revolution”. The wandering hunter gatherer lifestyle that had endured since our species started its evolution into humans was replaced by permanent settlements, out of which cities and civilization grew, and our population skyrocketed.

Following are ten significant things about the Agricultural Revolution, history’s greatest revolution.

Humans Evolved As Hunter Gatherers

For millions of years, our distant human and proto-human ancestors kept body and soul together by hunting animals, scavenging their carcasses, or eating plants and fruits. Unlike our (mostly) domesticated sources of nourishment today, the plants and animals that sustained our ancestors were wild. From the earliest hominids and throughout most of the history of Homo sapiens, our ancestors neither controlled nor attempted to influence the planting or birth of their food sources.

All things considered, it was a relatively easy lifestyle. For millions of years, human population densities were pretty low compared to the food resources available to feed them. Other than during periods of crisis caused by draughts or other natural disasters, our hunter gatherer ancestors seldom needed to put in more than an hour or two of work each day to gather enough calories to keep themselves and their dependents fed. Indeed, anthropologists today calculate that on average, hunter gatherers such as the Kalahari Desert Bushmen spend only about 15 hours each week to obtain food.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Khoisan hunter gatherers of the Kalahari Desert. The Big Raise

Kalahari Bushmen manage to do that despite eking their living in some of the most dreary and inhospitable terrain on earth – a literal desert. By contrast, hunter gatherers throughout most of history had free run of the most lush, hospitable, and resource rich terrain on the planet. Nourishment was there almost just for the taking, from a wide variety of plants and animals. And unlike our modern carbohydrate-rich diet, such as from wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes, our hunter gatherer ancestors had a better balanced and richer variety diet, with plenty of protein, as well as fruits.

Other than a brief period spent on gathering or hunting, the remainder of their waking hours were free time to spend as they saw fit, socializing, exploring their surroundings, sexing each other, or just lazing the day away. When anthropologists asked one Bushman why his hunter gatherer band had not settled down and adopted farming like the tribes surrounding the Kalahari Desert, he replied: “Why should we, when there are so many free mongongo nuts in the world?

Then about 10,000 years ago, that relatively carefree idyll started coming to an end as our ancestors were introduced to a new lifestyle that involved backbreaking work from sunup to sundown, taking care of a few plant and animal species. That was the start of the agricultural revolution. It eventually saw the majority of mankind shift from wild plants and animals as it main source of sustenance, and rely instead on the produce of farming and animal husbandry to feed itself.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Cave painting depicting hunting during the late paleolithic. Pintrest

Population Increase and a Decrease in Resources Placed Hunter Gatherers Under Mounting Pressure

Over the millennia, human hunter gatherer communities got better at collecting information about, and understanding, their environments. As that knowledge was passed down the generations, it accumulated and steadily grew. As a result, humans became more skillful at both hunting and gathering, and their impact on their environments steadily grew.

Steadily more efficient human hunters steadily placed many animal species, especially the mega fauna – large animals weighing more than 100 lbs – under increasing pressure. It is probably just a feel good myth that our hunter gatherer ancestors were particularly respectful of their environments, killing only what they needed, and consuming all that they killed.

Arriving in new territories outside Africa, where the mega fauna had evolved alongside humans for hundreds of thousands years – long enough to learn to fear us – they entered lands teeming with game that was not particularly wary of humans. In such bonanza conditions, our ancestors were as wasteful of food as we are today. The first arriving humans would have frequently killed only to consume the choicest bits, letting the rest of the carcass go to waste. Why bother eating any but the tastiest parts, when there was seemingly limitless game around? Similarly, our ancestors often adopted wantonly wasteful hunting techniques, such as stampeding entire herds to their death off cliffs, where most of the killed animals’ meat would have spoiled.

By the end of the last ice age, roughly 11,500 years ago, most mega fauna around the world, except those in Africa that had evolved to fear us, had gone extinct. In years past, conventional wisdom absolved our hunter gatherer ancestors from responsibility for those extinctions. It was fueled in no small part by “noble savage” mindsets that wanted to believe that our primitive ancestors were gentle environmentalists who respected nature and could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, our ancestors were often inclined to be just as selfish, destructive, and shortsighted as we are today. They simply lacked the technology and numbers to wreak as much havoc on their environment, and do so as quickly, as we can today. However, within the parameters of their capabilities, they wreaked enough havoc to drive or tip over many species into extinction.

That coincided with a changing climate at the tail end of the ice age that brought floods from melting glaciers, and warmer weather that blighted the plant life in many biospheres that had developed during a cooler era. For many humans around the world, that spelled the end of the idyllic conditions that had enabled earlier generations to feast upon seemingly limitless and easily hunted game. Life was about to get tougher.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Wild Wheat. Crop Wild Relatives

Depletion of Easy Food Sources Forced Hunter Gatherers to Examine Alternatives They Had Ignored Before

Over the millennia, as waves of humans migrated out of Africa and gradually spread around the world, depletion of local resources, especially from overhunting, had been a relatively easy problem to solve: move. The solution was often to simply walk a few miles over into the next valley or along a shore or down a river, until they arrived in a new biosphere not yet occupied by other humans.

However, by the end of the last of ice age, circa 11,500 years ago, humans had already moved into and occupied nearly the entire world. Other than some Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, nearly every habitable zone on earth, from the Arctic Circle in the north all the way down to the southern tip of South America, was already inhabited. That put paid to the usual standby solution of simply moving over to the next valley when resources in one’s own valley had run low. The next valley already had other hunter gatherers, and they were unlikely to welcome another band encroaching on their territory and using up the resources they needed for their own survival.

One possible solution was to violently oust neighboring bands from their stomping grounds in order to take their place, and many undoubtedly went with that option. However, violence would not always have been practical: for one thing, the neighboring hunter gatherers might have been more numerous, and even more warlike and bloodthirsty in defending their turf.

Another option was to stay put, and handle the problem of depleted local resources by putting one’s wits to even more intensive and efficient extraction of resources from their local environment. That often meant hunter gatherers were forced to take a second look at food items that their ancestors, who had lived in eras of abundance and plenty, would not have bothered with. Things got hard enough that some communities, driven by hunger, were reduced to experimenting with eating grass – wild wheat and barley.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Iranian ibex, from which goats were domesticated. Encyclopedia Iranica

The Agricultural Revolution Began With the Domestication of Goats and Sheep

Around the end of the last age, Middle Eastern hunters in the mountains of today’s Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, started to benefit from keeping some game animals close at hand – a protracted process that began by learning to manage flocks of wild sheep. By then, humans had tamed some particularly friendly wolves, and over succeeding generation had learned to train and breed them, resulting in the transformation of some wolves into man’s best friend, the dog.

The knowledge gained from domesticating dogs was tried on other animals, usually without success as most animals can at best be tamed as individuals, but not domesticated as a species. However, some animals have behavioral characteristics and social structures that lend themselves to domestication. By carefully exploiting those traits, some hunter gatherer communities managed to successfully domesticate goats and sheep, transforming what had once been herds of wild game into docile flocks.

The domestication of sheep consisted of a rough and ready systemic breeding of wild flocks by killing off the nastiest rams in nearby herds, while being kind to the rest. It was far from a straightforward process, and must have had many ups downs, and continuous difficulties – particularly with the rams during mating season. However, it eventually led to wild flocks whose ewes became so gentle and docile that hunters could approach and milk them. Over the generations of selective breeding, the wild mountain sheep grew increasingly more gentle, docile, plump and sheepish, and the peoples managing those herds were transformed from hunters into shepherds.

That sheep domestication template was used with other domesticable animals. Around the same time as sheep were being domesticated, a strain of Iranian ibex was transformed into today’s goats. Around 9000 BC, wild boars in northern China and today’s Turkey were domesticated into pigs. By 8000 BC, wild aurochs had been domesticated into cattle in the Middle East and India. Similar processes were used around the world to domesticate water buffalo, yaks, horses, donkeys, camels, reindeer, llama, alpaca, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigeons, and other staples of animal husbandry.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Early farming. Tes

Humans Did Not Eagerly Transition From Hunter Gatherers to Farmers

Conventional wisdom, especially during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, saw the agricultural revolution as a tale of human progress fueled by a growth in human intellect. As evolution made our ancestors steadily smarter, some of them, so the theory went, had a “EUREKA!” moment, discovered how to cultivate wheat, then cheerfully abandoned the hunter gather life and settled down as happy farmers.

However, hunter gatherers actually had an easier lifestyle than farmers, and it took them less time and effort to feed themselves. And not just feed themselves, but feed themselves a richer, more varied, and more nutritionally balanced diet than farmers. As a result, most of the hunter gatherers’ waking hours were spent not at work, but on leisure activities. By contrast, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with more difficult lives that required them to work harder in order to lead a less satisfying life than hunter gatherers, and eat a worse diet as well. And when they got good enough at farming to produce steady surpluses, the surpluses led to the emergence of elites – kings, priests, and nobles – who lived well off the farmers’ toil, while deriding them as peasants and frequently reducing them to serfs.

Still, the long term consequences of the Agricultural Revolution were beneficial to mankind. From a global human population of only a few million at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, we now number over 7 billion, have filled every habitable niche on the planet, and are poised to venture into the stars. By evolutionary standards, our species has been extremely successful, and the foundation of that evolutionary success was the Agricultural Revolution.

However, those distant forebears who traded hunter gathering for farming did not do so as a noble sacrifice for future generations, because they knew it would benefit their distant descendants thousands of years in the future. They did not voluntarily give up the easy hunter gatherer life and take up back breaking farm work because it meant distant offspring would someday land on the moon or surf the internet on smart phones.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Early farming. Bob Nicholls

The Transition to Farming

Soon after some Middle Eastern mountain bands took the first steps towards animal husbandry with the domestication of sheep and goats, hard times reduced some hunter gatherers to eating grass – specifically, wild wheat and barley. Such grass species were probably initially viewed as particularly good grazing for the newly domesticated flocks, but at some point, some people began experimenting with wild grass recipes.

After some trials and errors, probably involving boiling wild wheat and barley entire, it was eventually discovered that only the seeds were worth eating, while the stems were best left to the sheep and goats. More experimentation likely involved boiled wheat and barley seeds – an improvement over boiled stems. Yet more experimentation, involving the grinding, mixing, and baking, eventually produced a recipe for bread.

When bread was discovered – even the early dense and unleavened loaves – it must have seemed like a miracle food: what had been useless wild grasses that had only been good for grazing, now offered an entire meal in a single lump. It meant the territory where those wild grasses grew could now sustain more people than had hitherto been imagined.

Initially, wild wheat and barley seeds were simply collected while in season and taken back to the local inhabitants’ temporary campsites. Over the years, some of those gathered seeds inevitably fell near those campsites, seeding and transforming the vicinity into new, and increasingly denser wheat or barley fields. Eventually, somebody figured out the link between dropping some seeds on the earth, and the emergence some months later of new plants with many more seeds. Thus was born farming.

An added incentive for tending the miracle wild grasses was the durability of their seeds: once gathered, a kernel of wheat, for example, could last for years. That stood in stark contrast to most other dietary staples of hunter gatherers, such as meat, fish, or fruits, which had to be consumed soon after they were collected, or they would spoil. So people began tilling, planting, and weeding, as part time farmers in the hope of raising enough grain to supplement their hunter gatherer diet. Over the generations, the farming that had started as a part time gig for the hunter gatherers who had first discovered its secrets, eventually became a full time occupation for their descendants.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Early grindstone for processing wheat. Wikimedia

Rather Than Humans Domesticating Wheat, Wheat Might Have Domesticated Humans

In his international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Harari advances the argument that when it came to our main staple crops such as wheat and rice, it was actually the plants that domesticated humans, not the other way around. Taking wheat as an example, and examining it from the perspective of the basic evolutionary criterion of survival and reproduction, wheat was just a wild grass confined to a small range in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Within a few millennia – a blink of an eye in an evolutionary time scale – it was growing all over the world. Few if any species have ever achieved such growth within such a short time.

Wheat went from insignificant to globe spanning ubiquitous by manipulating humans. A species that had been living a relatively easy hunter gatherer life, until, about 10,000 years ago, it started investing more and more time and effort into cultivating wheat. Within a few millennia, humans around the world were spending most of their time from sunrise to sunset caring for wheat plants.

It was no easy task, as wheat is pretty finicky. Wheat was thirsty, so humans had to lug water or dig channels to bring water to it. Wheat was defenseless against critters that liked eating it, so humans defended it against rabbits, locusts, and deer. Wheat likes nutrients, so humans collected animal feces to scatter it over wheat fields. Wheat got sick, so humans had to keep a constant watch for blight and worms. Wheat does not like sharing its space with other plants, so humans spent hours stooping over wheat fields to remove weeds. Wheat does not like rocks or pebbles, so humans wrecked their backs clearing wheat fields.

Over millions of years, our bodies had evolved to climb trees or chase after gazelles in the African Savannah, not to bend over wheat fields to clear, weed, hoe, and water them, or perform many of the other myriad tasks associated with caring for that plant. Yet, wheat convinced us to do just that, and accept the resultant hernias, slipped disks, plus neck, knee, back, and foot pains as an acceptable price to pay in order to cultivate that plant.

Seen from the above perspective, the argument that it was wheat that actually domesticated humans, not humans who domesticated wheat, does not seem so farfetched. The very word “domesticate” is derived from the Latin root domus, or house: it was wheat that convinced our ancestors to give up hunter gathering, and settled down in houses near their farms so they could be closer to wheat.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Early farmers during the Agricultural Revolution. Time Toast

The Initial Surplus and Abundance From Farming Was Soon Exhausted in Feeding the Growing Number of Farmers

Farming – particularly the early cultivation of grains such as wheat, barley, and rice, resulted in a caloric bonanza, and a period of abundance for the early farmers. Once the early farmers had figured out how to go about the tasks of seeding and planting and tending their fields, they often ended up with more grain than they could consume. Especially during the transition period when farming was only done part time, and harvested grains were only a supplement to the diets of those splitting their time between farming and hunter gathering. Because harvested grains did not spoil easily, and could thus be stored for long periods of time, early farmers – even after settling down to farm full time – enjoyed a period of unprecedented caloric surpluses.

Grain cultivation allowed farmers to extract more calories per acre from cultivable land than hunter gatherers could from a similarly sized territory. That spelled abundance at first – at least in calories, if not in dietary variety. However, more calories, combined with the now sedentary lifestyle of the farmers, meant that they could raise and feed bigger families – which they promptly went ahead and did. So the additional calories from farming eventually went to feed the new hungry mouths.

The mobile lifestyle of hunter gatherers means that their women cannot care for or carry more than a single child that is too young to walk on its own and keep up with the rest of the group. As a result, hunter gatherer women have a low birth rate, as they must wait until their latest child is strong enough to walk on its own, before giving birth to another that the mother must carry. Farmers in settled communities have no such restrictions, as new children can be cared for by elderly relatives while their mothers are out toiling in the fields.

Indeed, because farming is so labor intensive, farmers have an incentive to birth many children as quickly as possible – both to keep ahead of the high child mortality, and to put the surviving offspring to work. Eventually, much of the surplus went to feed the growing settled farmer populations, and what had started off as abundance for the early farmers, reached an equilibrium that left many of the early farmers’ descendants barely eking a living from the land.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Contrasting hunter gatherer average height with that of farmers. Pintrest

Humans Paid a High Price For the Transition to Farming

Today, humans on average enjoy more abundance, affluence, and security, than during any previous period in the history of our species. Because our prosperity is built upon foundations created during the Agricultural Revolution, particularly the transition to settled farming, it is easy to assume that the transition had been beneficial at the time. It was not.

Take our first major staple crop, wheat. It did not offer a better diet. We are an omnivorous species that evolved to thrive on the wide variety of food offered by the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Grains made up only a tiny fraction of our diet before we took up farming, but they soon came to form almost the whole of most humans’ caloric consumption. Also, during most of the period after we took up farming, the grains-based diet was poor in minerals and vitamins, was hard to digest, and because flour was not as finely ground and refined as today, it ground our ancestors’ teeth to nubs.

Indeed, the transition from a hunter gatherer diet to the grain based diet of farmers reduced both the average life expectancy and the physical heights of farmers compared to their hunter gatherer ancestors. Average height for men went from 5’10” during the hunter gathering period to 5’5″ after our ancestors took up farming, while women’s height decreased from 5’5″ to 5’1″. It took about 10,000 years – until late in the 20th century – for the average human height to return to what it had been before the Agricultural Revolution.

Farming was also risky. Hunter gatherers relied on dozens of species to survive, and if times got hard and one or more species grew scarce, they could eat more of other species that were still around. By contrast, farmers got most of their calories from a few staple crops, and sometimes from just a single crop, such as wheat, rice, or potatoes. If that crop failed, famine frequently followed, killing off thousands, or even millions, of farmers.

Farming also led to more violence. Because farmers relied for their survival on the crops planted in their fields, they had far more of an incentive to defend their territory than did hunter gatherers, who often could avoid violence from interlopers by moving on. Moving on and abandoning their fields often meant death from starvation for farmers, so conflicts involving settled farmers and interlopers led to greater violence than humans had ever experienced before.

To gauge the likely levels of violence in early farming communities, anthropologists studied primitive agricultural communities in New Guinea, and discovered than in some agricultural tribes, violence accounts for 35 percent of male deaths. It is even worse in some primitive agricultural tribes in South America, where 50 percent of all adults, of both sexes, meet a violent death at the hands of other humans.

In addition, farming eventually led to the subjugation of most farmers by emerging elites. Chiefs, priests, and warriors who formed an aristocratic caste, seized the surpluses produced from farming, and reduced the farmers to a caste of downtrodden peasants and serfs. That inequality and injustice was the foundation upon which civilization was built. While civilization was and is generally a good thing, it should not be forgotten that it was built upon the often unwilling, aching, and sometimes flogged, backs of the soil’s tillers. Those downtrodden farmers were the vast majority of mankind throughout most of human history.

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History’s Greatest Revolution
Astronaut on the moon. Washington Post

The Impact of the Agricultural Revolution

While the Agricultural Revolution came at a high price, particularly for the farmers who actually tilled the fields for thousands of years, there is no doubt that its impact on our species – although not on the rest of the planet – has been highly beneficial. By the evolutionary criterion of success – measured by a species’ survival and reproduction – we have been extremely successful in the past 10,000 years. Our population went from about 5 million worldwide at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, to over 7 billion today.

That success is based almost entirely on the Agricultural Revolution and our distant ancestors’ transition from hunting and gathering to settled farming. That made an increasingly larger population possible, as agricultural food production led to more intense extraction of calories from the land. That supported denser populations, which in turn supported larger sedentary communities.

However, the growth in population was not immediate, as the potential growth was offset for quite some time by an increase in warfare and diseases. Nonetheless, as succeeding generations of humans developed stronger resistance to diseases, the gap between births and deaths gradually began to widen. And as our ancestors inched their way towards governments that reduced violence within communities – cumulatively deadlier than wars – the population growth sped up even further.

Surplus food allowed for the emergence of social elites – warrior aristocrats and priests. They came to dominate their communities, seized a lion’s share of the resources, monopolized decision making, and laid the foundations for government and religion. The surplus food also allowed for the emergence of specialists, such as potters, toolmakers, and builders, who were able to subsist by trading their skills and services for the food produced by farmers. That in turn led to a technological revolution – starting with simple pottery and gradually accumulating until we arrive at our present breakneck pace of technological and scientific advances. For good and ill, where we are today, and where we are headed, would not have been possible without the Agricultural Revolution, history’s greatest revolution.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Christian, David – Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (2018)

Diamond, Jared – Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005)

Discover Magazine, May 1987 – The Worst Mistake In the History of the Human Race

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Guardian, The, December 5th, 2017 – How Neolithic Farming Sowed the Seeds of Modern Inequality 10,000 Years Ago

Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

Harari, Yuval Noah – Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017)

National Geographic Genographic Project – The Development of Agriculture: The Farming Revolution

Science Alert, November 24th, 2015 – Ancient DNA Reveals How Agriculture Changed Our Height, Digestion, and Skin Color

Wikipedia – Neolithic Revolution