Excerpt: The Long Now
How agriculture and humankind’s colonisation of Earth shaped the modern world
The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 6, musings 27
There are some who think human history would be more exciting if an island called Atlantis had once slipped beneath the Atlantic, or if aliens had helped the ancient Egyptians build the Pyramids. The reason people think history would be more interesting if those things were true (which they’re not) is because they haven’t grasped how extraordinary the actual truth about their world is beginning to look, or the captivating nature of the patterns now emerging.
Anthropologists, geneticists, linguists and archaeologists are piecing together the events which brought us here, reconstructing the plotline of humanity. That plotline consists of a vast weave of human dramas which took place across one hundred millennia with a cast of 100 billion humans, each generation in turn entering this stage, playing its part and returning to dust.
In order to understand my ultimate thesis – as to how we interpret what’s happening on this planet – there are two chunks of information about that plotline you’re going to need. The first is about agriculture and the effect it had on human society. The second is how we colonised this world. Not the European colonisation of the last millennia, but the original one back in prehistory.
Agriculture changed everything. It was the great watershed in history which transformed the human world.
Agriculture emerged in the Middle East about 10,000 BCE and fully agricultural societies were established in the Fertile Crescent (modern Iraq and the Levant) from about 7000 BCE. Agriculture then spread across the planet, transforming it from one filled with hunter-gatherer peoples into one filled with farmers. With the exception of a few groups living in marginal areas of savannah or rainforest (for example the Kalahari bushmen and New Guinea tribesmen), that process came to an end around 100 years before this book was written.
Once you start farming it’s almost impossible to go back. Historically, populations always grew with the food supply. Because agriculture produces more food than hunting and gathering, populations grow proportionally. Once a society has adopted agriculture, within a few generations its population is too large to be fed any other way. It’s called the ratchet effect. The human race was – and still is – trapped into farming.
Agriculture made life worse, not better. People in hunter-gatherer societies eat a well-balanced diet which is low in fat and high in protein. They live low-stress lives, don’t have to work very hard and get lots of leisure time. People living in traditional agrarian societies spend most of their lives working, rarely have enough food, have dull, poorly balanced diets and are more or less guaranteed to suffer periodic famines.
The archaeological record shows that once agriculture became the main method of food production in a region, people lost about two inches in height, had more diseases and worse teeth than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. They also almost certainly lived shorter lives. Humans did not evolve to be farmers, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t suit us.
Combine harvesters and artificial fertilisers are very recent developments. When humanity invented agriculture, that meant subsistence agriculture. The life experience of the vast majority of people between the invention of farming and the past two centuries was one of grinding toil, endemic disease, bad food, periodic famine, almost no material possessions and only the slimmest prospect of a more interesting life.
In addition, the whole political apparatus of history with which everyone is familiar – countries, kings, warlords etc. – is entirely a consequence of agriculture. Before agriculture, people lived in tribes. Life wasn’t equitable, but social hierarchies were immeasurably flatter than they subsequently became. It was agriculture, the food surplus it created and the ability to support non-food producers which led to grand inequalities in human societies being instigated, reinforced and then institutionalised. A great deal of our subsequent religious, social and cultural history has been about the efforts of entrenched elites to make those inequalities appear natural, which they’re not.
We are all members of a species that has just gone through a baptism of fire. In most parts of the world it lasted several thousand years.
Humankind’s colonisation of planet Earth – the second chunk of information I need to give you – happened even earlier in prehistory.
Humans belong to a primate family called the hominids. The hominid family evolved in Africa 4.5 million years ago and includes several other species, including Homo habilis, Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus and the Neanderthals. Various branches of the hominid family have been wandering around Africa, Europe and Asia for a million years. They’re all extinct apart from us.
We Homo sapiens also evolved in Africa, from Homo erectus, about 200,000 years ago. From there we went on to colonise not only Europe and Asia, but also the other continents. Here’s how it happened.
About 60,000 years ago a group of humans crossed the Red Sea from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. From there they began spreading out. They first made their way along the coast of the Indian Ocean to Indonesia and Australia, then throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, from there into Europe and East Asia, across Siberia, over the Bering Strait, into North America and all the way down into South America.
Every habitable region of Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia had humans by 30,000 years ago. We crossed into North America about 12,500 years ago and had reached the southern tip of South America by 10,000 years ago. That left only the Pacific islands, which were colonised one by one from East Asia after about 1600 BCE. The last major landmass to receive human inhabitants was New Zealand, which the ancestors of the Maori people reached 1,000 years ago, thereby completing the colonisation of planet Earth.
Five hundred years after that, European ships began joining all those people together and mixing them up. Five hundred years after that, in one bohemian corner of that mixed-up world, I landed a job in a drag club.
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.
This subchapter was named in honour of the Long Now foundation.