The domestication of plants and animals is universally recognized as one of the most profound turns of events in human history. Millennia ago, Jewish scripture taught reverently that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” 1 Today’s scientists are not nearly so florid, but we still describe domestication as the agricultural (or Neolithic) revolution.
Domestication arose out of cultivation; the line between them is fuzzy. The term domestication suggests human involvement in the reproductive cycle, in a conscious effort to raise organisms that are suited to human needs. Because humans breed for their favorite traits, most domesticated species eventually evolve into forms not quite found in nature. All breeds of house dog, for example, evolved from the wolf. The role that humans now play in guiding evolution is termed artificial selection. In other words, our ancestors have been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years!
The advantages to our species hardly need stating. Domestic plants and animals provided food and drugs, clothing and other materials, transport, muscle power, and military assistance. By making crops and livestock immediately available, the first farmers made their own lives drastically more efficient. The sacrifice was an imbalance of nature. Agriculture is characterized by isolating crops so that each plot of land supports only one plant type, a simplification of ecosystems. Clearing out fields often required deforestation. It also actually reduced nutritional diversity in the human diet. 2 For their part, some plants and animals became so domesticated that they can no longer survive without human care and breeding. 3The first agriculture appeared very early in the Holocene Epoch, 10 – 12 KYA. The revolution was not immediately global, but occurred independently in just a few localities. The Fertile Crescent, from Egypt to Syria to Iran, was the world’s most influential cradle of agriculture. It was not only the first but also the largest and most diverse, and was situated in a critically central location. Resources available here included wheat, flax and legumes, sheep and goats, pigs, cattle, and cats. 1 4 Today’s “European” cattle may all descend from a small herd of about 100 oxen domesticated in the Neolithic Fertile Crescent.
Only three other spots on Earth are undisputed cradles of agriculture. Paleo-Chinese cultures farmed along the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys. They domesticated wheat, millet, rice, soy, dogs, chickens, and pigs. Silk was a uniquely Chinese resource, harvested from silkworms. Meanwhile, agriculture appeared in Mesoamerica (Mexico) and the Andes of Peru. Mesoamerican farmers are renowned for creating corn from wild teosinte, a grass whose “ears” look like hard tufts of wheat. 5 The Andeans bred potatoes from a small, toxic wild ancestor. 6
Agriculture propagated outward from the Old World centers at a rate of about 1 kilometer per year. 7 The agriculture of the Fertile Crescent expanded northwest into Europe and east to India. Chinese influence spread southward and eastward, from Japan to New Guinea. North-south spread was more problematic than east-west, because crops are sensitive to latitude. This consideration, as well as other geographical barriers, presented disadvantages for America and Africa. 8 Agriculture never reached Australia until the last millennium.
Plant domestication intensified the production of drugs as well as food. Beer and wine are almost as ancient as domesticated grains and fruit. American sites show traces of coca leaves and hallucinogenic cacti and beans dating as far back as 11 KYA. 9 Poppy, the natural source of opiates, was domesticated in the Mediterranean region before 7 KYA. 10 Asian farmers later bred marijuana for its high THC content. 11
Agricultural people lived a radically different lifestyle from their hunter-gatherer forebears. This topic will focus on the demographic changes brought about by the Neolithic revolution. Socioeconomic impacts will be the next topic of discussion.
The most immediate consequence of agriculture was a concentration of people into higher population densities. This is not only because farmers stopped wandering and settled down in one spot. It’s also because they were able to feed greater numbers. They even harvested more food than they could eat all at once, and had to store or trade surpluses.
Very early in the history of villages, populations topped the critical point of about 200 persons. This is the psychological value below which “everyone knows everyone”. 12 As populations grew, villagers were forced to live with people they didn’t know, and even to cooperate in large numbers. This was a drastic change for a species that, for millions of years, had no qualms about killing strangers! Large-scale cooperation must have been easier when everyone was well-fed.
Another consequence of food surplus was that not everyone had to spend all their time feeding themselves. While most people continued to farm at least part-time, some were free to specialize in the crafts, trades, and services that make town life possible. Some specialists made pottery and baskets for carrying food and water. Others built structures. The oldest known city in the world, Jericho, had houses and defensive walls 10,000 years ago. Other buildings included granaries and temples. They were made of stones and semi-permanent substances like tar, plaster, and wood. Some settlements even started to use elementary metals such as gold, silver, 13 and copper 14 as early as -5000. These are all emergent properties of population density – things that humans can do only when they live together in communities.
Village life exacerbated the free-rider problem. It is tempting for each villager to be lazy or selfish and reap the benefits of everyone else’s labor. Small, closed societies cannot afford free-riders. The solution is a moral code, enforced in at least three ways: reputation networks, law, and religion. People care about their reputations. In a small town, word gets around quickly if someone is a cheater, liar, or thief. The results can be socially disastrous. A larger town requires laws respecting crime and personal property, enforced by at least a minimal government structure. Yet even governments are human. In group settings, the final arbiters of justice were supernatural. Some spirits and personal gods kept an eye out on individual behavior and meted out appropriate rewards and punishments. Personal gods were clearly a mental representation of the “greater good”. They worked. Belief in personal gods encouraged the kind of individual moral behavior that sustained the community, 15 and helped societies become more complex. 16
The oldest towns in the world, 5 – 10 KYA, dotted Eurasia from Ireland to China. They typically covered about 10 – 30 acres and supported a few thousand inhabitants. Other than Jericho, the oldest and best known sites are in Turkey. Catal Hoyuk was an egalitarian complex of plaster houses decorated with interior murals and bull horns. Göbekli Tepe was the site of impressive temples. A particular style of pottery was found throughout most of Europe about 7 KYA and gave its name to the LinearBandKeramik culture. Britain and even Scandinavia were resettled by this time.
With the first dense human settlements came the first epidemiology. Deadly diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and flu are closely related to variants in animals. These pathogens likely jumped from domesticated animals (including self-domesticated rodents) to humans and then evolved to human form. 17 Epidemics had never been possible when humans lived in small bands. Now that they lived in close quarters, they became much better vectors for spreading these diseases. Smallpox in particular has been the human species’ most prolific killer of all time, 18 with a cumulative death toll on the order of a billion! 19 Over time, of course, some people developed better immune responses and survived epidemics to pass their more robust genes on to their children. Native Americans and Australians never encountered these diseases at all until Europeans suddenly introduced them last millennium. With no immunity, these populations were especially vulnerable, and their numbers were decimated quickly after European contact. 20
The middle Neolithic period, around 5 – 10 KYA, was one of the most pivotal moments for human nature. Wealth and power came into being, and a handful of cultures learned how to manage non-egalitarian, rank-based societies.
Wealth is an accumulation of private property. The very concept of personal property arose in the first villages with houses, granaries, bounded fields, and livestock. 21 Food was the essential resource. A family that was able to accumulate herds of cattle and stores of grains had advantages and bargaining power over others who had less.
At the same time, growing population centers faced new needs. They required law and order, defense, diplomacy and trade with neighboring villages. It seems that the most practical solution to redistribute wealth for public spending was through a central leader, a chief, who would collect tributes or taxes from the villagers.
The chiefdom was a polity intermediate between the egalitarian tribe and the full-blown kingdom. Every ancient state grew out of a preliminary chiefdom phase. 22 Unlike the smaller and more ancient tribes, in chiefdoms leadership was permanently vested in one nuclear family. Hereditary title provided stability by preventing uncertainty about who was in charge. Primogeniture, usually to the oldest son, kept the ruling family from diffusing over the generations. A chief and his clan ruled over one village or a few satellite villages. As the chiefdom grew, so did the leader’s inner circle. Eventually, even the government got too large for everyone to know everyone, and at this point it was growing into a state.
Since the mid-Neolithic, then, there have been four means to exert influence in human affairs: positions of authority, wealth, arms, and organized numbers. Concentration of wealth and arms empowered rulers to resist the numbers that may have organized against them. On the other hand, the wealthy did not become solely exploitative but also assumed the burdens of leadership. A scion relies on his base, and he will maintain it best when he defends his realm and manages a healthy economy. These considerations help align his interests somewhat with those of his subjects. Power and leadership did not necessarily have to evolve together, but interestingly they did. This would indicate that integrating privilege and responsibility in the same ruling class offered strong survival advantages for the cultures that did so.
How did the first chiefs earn their titles? It took more than just an entrepreneurial streak. In the cultures that have been observed making a transition from egalitarian tribes to ranked chiefdoms, preeminence usually had a basis in historic seniority: “We were here first” or “We descend from the senior lineage.” 23 Without written records, these claims were often based on flimsy evidence, and it was easy to rewrite history. In fact, it was just as easy to rewrite religion. 24 When the people accepted a chief, they regarded him as imbued with sacred power, making his authority unquestionable. The chief was in charge of the community’s religion, and rituals reinforced his rank. At least in the chiefdoms of the Pacific, the chief’s ancestry was elevated to the status of gods. 25
We have seen that religion adopted two major new roles in the urban environment: to promote cooperation and to legitimize the chief’s authority. When the chief was the lawmaker, obviously these roles reinforced each other. Once again, we see the dichotomy of serving the leaders’ selfish interests simultaneously with the greater good.
On the opposite end of the power spectrum, slavery also dates to the first chiefdoms. The need for slaves only came about when agriculture created a demand for labor. Slaves were usually “outsiders” but could also be criminals or even lost-cause debtors. Rulers valued slave labor so highly that they often raided neighboring villages for them. Most villagers had a rank somewhere between chief and slave. Social status was determined not strictly by birthright but also skill set and military prowess. 26
Starting around 5 – 6 KYA, prehistorians are able to supplement their archaeological and genetic evidence with linguistic analysis. By and large, languages have phylogenies much like species. As the speakers of a language become diffuse and isolated, their dialects often “speciate” into distinct but related languages. By studying similarities in words and grammar, linguists are able to trace today’s large language families to their theoretical ancestral mother tongues. There are thousands of languages today, as there surely were in the Neolithic. However, most living languages are classified into fewer than ten major language families. This suggests that most Neolithic languages are now extinct, while about ten of them were successful enough to spread throughout the world. These dominant proto-languages were largely associated with successful farming / ranching cultures, which had much greater capacity for large-scale influence than hunter-gatherer societies. 27
There is more than one way to measure the size or success of a language family. Today’s largest by the number of languages is the Niger-Congo family. There are over 1,000 living languages in this family, all concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. The proto-Niger-Congo language originated with yam farmers in western Africa. 28 The continent’s lingering diversity reflects the fact that sub-Saharan Africa was never subsumed by a major empire. A billion people speak the world’s single largest language, Mandarin, or a related Sino-Tibetan language. This entire family can be traced back 6,000 years to the eastern Himalayas, 29 and its spread was associated with millet agriculture. 30 Other major language families include Afro-Asiatic (Arabic and its relatives) and Austronesian, which spread from Taiwan to all the South Pacific islands in the last 5,000 years.
As measured by the number of speakers, number of countries, or land area, however, the Indo-European language family is by far the largest. It is also the most widely studied, as it was the first language family to be recognized; in fact, the modern form of linguistics grew out of 19th century research into Indo-European. 31 As its name suggests, this family was already spread far and wide before globalization, from Western Europe to India. The number of languages in this family is now relatively small, only about 100, due to persistent contact among Eurasians. They include English, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, and French – seven of today’s ten most populous languages. 32
This is a very diverse spectrum of languages, yet the fact that they share many similar words and grammatical conventions suggests that they share a common origin. For instance, the word for field is agros in Greek, ager in Latin, akrs in Gothic (an extinct Germanic language), and ajras in Sanskrit (an Indian language). With knowledge of how sounds change from one language to another, we can reconstruct the theoretical original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *agras 2 – the ultimate root of our words agriculture and acre. 33
Today’s best evidence indicates that the PIE occupied the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, present-day Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, in the -5th to -3rd millennia. 34 They may have coincided with what archaeologists call the Yamna or pit-grave culture. Language and architecture tell us that the PIEs were pastoralists with a few crops, that they worshipped a sky god and made animal sacrifices, domesticated horses and honeybees, and organized themselves into patrilineal chiefdoms. 35The successful spread of the Indo-Europeans may have involved some military force, but was probably by-and-large a gradual cultural diffusion. 36 PIE culture introduced some extremely valuable goods and resources. The earliest evidence for domestication of the horse is traced to Kazakhstan about 6 KYA, two millennia before the rest of Europe. 37 Some of the very earliest bronze artifacts and wheeled vehicles are also traced to this place and time.
The PIEs’ language and legends may also have survived well because of their penchant for poetry. The saga of the first three men, *Manu, *Yemo, and *Trito, was an important part of PIE heritage. After an evil serpent stole their cattle, these men solicited help from the gods to slay the serpent and reclaim the cattle. The men were so grateful that they sacrificed a share to the gods, and so the cycle of giving continued. This narrative justified the significance of sacrifice and the priests who performed it – a predominant theme in early organized religion. 38
- Genesis 1:26, King James Bible ↩
- George Armelagos, “Brain Evolution, the Determinates of Food Choice, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition vol 54, issue 10, pp. 1330 – 1341 (2/24/2014), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408398.2011.635817?scroll=top&needAccess=true (paysite; abstract accessed 8/13/2017). ↩
- Kyle Chamberlain, “The Domestication Spectrum: How Our Relationships with Plants and Animals Define Our Existence”, Permaculture Research Institute, 3/04/2010, https://permaculturenews.org/2010/03/04/the-domestication-spectrum-how-our-relationships-with-plants-and-animals-define-our-existence/ (accessed and saved 8/13/2017). Non-academic; a good plain-English read. ↩
- Claudio Ottoni et al, “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world”, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, article no. 0139 (2017), doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0139 (accessed and saved 8/5/17). ↩
- Yoshihiro Matsuoka et al, “A single domestication for maize shown by multilocus microsatellite genotyping”, PNAS vol. 99 no. 9 (4/30/2002), http://www.pnas.org/content/99/9/6080.long (accessed and saved 8/05/17). For an excellent plain English summary of this topic, see Sean Carroll, “Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years”, The New York Times 5/24/2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/science/25creature.html?_r=1 (accessed and saved 8/05/17). ↩
- Nicoletta Maestri, “Potato History – Archaeological Evidence for Domesticating Potatoes” (secondary source), ThoughtCo (2/15/2017), https://www.thoughtco.com/potato-history-archaeological-evidence-172097 (accessed and saved 8/05/17). ↩
- Christopher Seddon, Humans: from the beginning, Glanville Publications (2014), p. 226. ↩
- This is one of the central theses in Jared Diamond’s popular-science account Guns, Germs, and Steel, W.W. Norton, 1997. ↩
- Elisa Guerra-Doce, “”Psychoactive Substances in Prehistoric Times: Examining the Archaeological Evidence”, Time and Mind volume 8, Issue 1 (2015), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1751696X.2014.993244?journalCode=rtam20 (paysite), summarized by Macrina Cooper-White, “Humans Have Been Getting High Since Prehistoric Times, Research Shows”, Huffington Post, 2/2/2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/12/prehistoric-drug-use-thousands-of-years_n_6622446.html (accessed 8/13/2017). ↩
- Ferran Antolin and Ramon Buxo, “Chasing the traces of diffusion of agriculture during the early Neolithic in the western Mediterranean coast”, Rubricatum: revista del Museu de Gavà (en línia), 2012, Núm. 5 , pp. 95-102. http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Rubricatum/article/view/269300/356849 (accessed and saved 8/13/2017). ↩
- Bakel et al, “The draft genome and transcriptome of Cannabis sativa”, Genome Biology 2011, 12:R102, https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2011-12-10-r102 (accessed and saved 8/13/2017). ↩
- R.I.M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”, Journal of Human Evolution vol. 22, issue 6 (June, 1992), pp. 469-493, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/004724849290081J (official pay site). Also available at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.464.5806&rep=rep1&type=pdf (accessed and saved 12/17/2017). ↩
- Alfred Lucas and J. Harris, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 4ed, Courier Corporation, p. 41 (accessed and saved 8/27/2017). ↩
- Miljana Radivojevic et al, “On the origins of extractive metallurgy: new evidence from Europe”, Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 2775-2787, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2010.06.012 (accessed and saved 8/27/2017). ↩
- Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat, “Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation”, Evolution and Human Behavior 32 (2011) 41 – 49, http://courses.washington.edu/evpsych/God%20enforces%20cooperation%20-%20EHB%202011.pdf (accessed and saved 9/13/2017). ↩
- Joseph Watts et al, “Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia”, Proc. R. Soc. B. 282: 20142556 (2015), http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/282/1804/20142556 (accessed and saved 9/17/2017). ↩
- Aidan Cockburn, “Where did our infectious diseases come from?” CIBA Foundation Symposium no. 49 (Wiley, 1977), p. 111 (accessed and saved 8/27/2017). For a more detailed smallpox study, see Yu Li et al, “On the origin of smallpox: Correlating variola phylogenics with historical smallpox records”, PNAS vol 104 no 40 (8/15/2007), http://www.pnas.org/content/104/40/15787.full (accessed and saved 8/27/2017). ↩
- Nicolau Barquet and Pere Domingo, “Smallpox: the triumph over the most terrible of the ministers of death”, Annals of Internal Medicine 127:635-42 (10/15/1997), http://annals.org/aim/article/710873/smallpox-triumph-over-most-terrible-ministers-death (abstract accessed and saved 8/27/2017). ↩
- The estimate of 300 – 500 million deaths in the 20th century is commonly quoted, though I have not yet traced this figure to its source. ↩
- America: Lois Magner, “The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans”, Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery (2001). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/impact-european-diseases-native-americans (accessed and saved 8/27/2017). Australia: Judy Campbell, “Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780 – 1880. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2007, xiv, p. 266, http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=248035834412189;res=IELIND (pay site; abstract accessed and saved 8/27/2017). ↩
- National Center for History in the Schools, “Key Theme Four: Haves and Have-Nots”, http://worldhistoryforusall.ss.ucla.edu/themes/keytheme4.php (accessed and saved 9/10/2017). ↩
- Robert Wright, “The Age of Chiefdoms”, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Pantheon Books, 2000), Chapter 7, http://www.nonzero.org/chap7.htm (accessed and saved 9/10/2017). ↩
- Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire ( Harvard University Press, 2012). Flannery and Marcus use the phrase “We were here first” six times in this book, and “senior lineage” seven times. ↩
- Flannery and Marcus cite numerous examples of tribes or chiefdoms revising their creation stories to justify changing social relations. One such example is taken from M.J. Meggitt, Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962) wherein the Walbiri creation myth explained the godly source of “sections”, a sociological structure that they had only been using since 1850. ↩
- Examples are given by Brij Lal and Kate Fortune in The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (University of Hawaii Press, 2000), p. 135. https://books.google.com/books?id=T5pPpJl8E5wC&pg=PA135#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed and saved 9/17/2017). ↩
- Irving Goldman, Ancient Polynesian Society, University of Chicago Press (1970). ↩
- Colin Renfrew and Peter Bellwood, editors, Examining the Farming / Language Dispersal Hypothesis, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (2002). Summarized by Jared Diamond and Peter Bellwood, “Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions”, Science vol 300, issue 5619 (4/25/2003), pp. 597 – 603, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/300/5619/597.long (accessed and saved 9/23/2017). ↩
- Jared Diamond and Peter Bellwood, “Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions”, Science vol 300, issue 5619 (4/25/2003), pp. 597 – 603, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/300/5619/597.long (accessed and saved 9/23/2017). ↩
- UC Berkeley STEDT team, “The Sino-Tibetan Language Family”, Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus, http://stedt.berkeley.edu/about-st#homeland (accessed and saved 12/17/2017). ↩
- E. N. Anderson, Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China, University of Pennsylvania Press (2014), p. 22, https://books.google.com/books?id=LJRuBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA22 (accessed and saved 9/24/2017). ↩
- Frederick J. Newmeyer, “The History of Modern Linguistics”, Linguistic Society of America (2012), https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/history-modern-linguistics (accessed and saved 9/24/2017). ↩
- Native speaker statistics: Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2017. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size (accessed and saved 9/30/2017). Second-language statistics: Apparently also from Ethnologue (a pay site), summarized on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers (accessed and saved 9/30/2017). ↩
- August Schleicher (1821 – 1868), summarized by J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth, Thames and Hudson (London, 1989), pp. 14 – 16. ↩
- Marija Gimbutas, The Prehistory of Eastern Europe. Part I: Mesolithic, Neolithic and Copper Age Cultures in Russia and the Baltic Area, Peabody Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1956). As summarized and updated by David Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press (ebook, 2007). ↩
- Mallory and Anthony both discuss these points. ↩
- Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language (2007). Kindle version location 6159 (Ch. 14 conclusion). ↩
- Alan Outram et al, “The Earliest Horse Harnessing and Milking”, Science vol. 323 (3/06/2009), http://science.sciencemag.org/content/323/5919/1332 (accessed and saved 10/01/2017). ↩
- J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Thames & Hudson (London, 1989), pp. 137 – 138. ↩
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