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The Role of Farming in Societies (Part 1: The Past)

By: Rebecca Aréchiga

The thing about modern humans, and the thing that has always been the case about humans for the 200,000 years that we’ve been around, is that we have to eat. Now, just like then, we must keep obtain energy from our environment and keep our hunger at bay.

            Early humans were hunters, gatherers and scavengers. For about 187,000 years we lived our lives and taught our children to survive in this way. Early humans went out into the wild in search of meals, collecting staples such as plant-based foods and fungi as well as fishing and hunting game. Obtaining food from the wild was the central theme of living.

Then, only about 12,000 years ago (as in, after 188,000 years of being solely hunters and gatherers), we began experimenting with purposefully cultivating plants to grow for our benefit as well as domesticating animals for food.

For cultures that lived intimately with their inhabited ecosystems, enhancement of the plant and animal life that sustained them was a natural extension of being part of that ecosystem. By scavenging and hunting alone, the planet could only support around 10 million people and scientists estimate that at this time, there were about 6-10 million humans on Earth. Although farming required more time and energy than scavenging, it provided approximately 10 to 100 times more food per acre. Along with this great shift in food security, human’s ability to move with the food had begun to vanish. By establishing agriculture as our main means of food production, civilizations began to flourish.

Across the globe, indigenous societies developed sophisticated agricultural systems that reflected the countless generations of ecological knowledge from which they arose. They shared a common thread of deep understanding of the natural systems that surrounded them. Recent studies have shown that tribes in the Amazon had begun cultivating the forest which they depended on for survival nearly 10,000 years ago. 

            Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the location of one of the world’s first true civilizations. About 5,000 years ago, the Sumerian people were growing barley, wheat, flax, dates, apples, plums and grapes and were also breeding sheep and goats for meat, milk, butter and cheese. Nearly half of Ur’s population (many of them the world’s first slaves) contributed to the cultivation of 3,000 acres of land. Those who did not actively contribute to the attainment of sustenance were able to focus on humanities and sciences. The concept of time and the development of writing are both contributed to the Sumerians during this time.

            In this early agricultural period, the cultivation of food was still a focus of the entire community however. The resources of land, plants, and animals were controlled in a way that promoted the continued health of those resources, and therefore the health of the community at large.

            On the other side of the globe, and a bit more than 5,000 years after the establishment of Sumer, the Hawaiian archipelago became a prime example of mindful management of resources on a landscape scale, extending from the islands’ mountains to their seas.

In the pre-contact era, Native Hawaiians adapted to resource limitations by adopting conservation measures which allowed them to persist and thrive as a people through frequent catastrophic natural events such as hurricanes, droughts and flooding, lava flows, and tsunamis. This social-ecological system of resource management allowed Native Hawaiians to anticipate and quickly recover from natural disasters in addition to sustaining numerous resources for more than a millennium.

            Native Hawaiians ensured resilient food systems by facilitating high levels of biodiversity and also intermittently placing restrictions, or kapu, on the harvest key fish species to encourage population recovery. This kapu system was utilized until 1819, forty years after Western contact, when the ancient Hawaiian religion was extinguished, and with it, the regulations which helped assure long-term abundance of resources, leaving valuable species vulnerable.

When looking for the roots of our current agricultural models, we can look to Europe roughly 500 years ago when increased mechanized farming practices and the privatization of land once held in common by subsistence farmers led to increased yields and unprecedented profits. These extractive farming models were exported through European colonialism across the globe and with it came theft of land, murder and enslavement and loss of local agricultural systems and knowledge. 

            By now, farming was at last the way of (most of) the world with humans firmly establishing agriculture as our main means of food production. Eventually, cities rose. Instead of everyone finding or growing food, as in the hunting and gathering days, or even a large portion of the population contributing to the cultivation of food, as in the early agricultural days, now only those labeled “farmers” fulfilled that role for the rest of the community.

Others were free to live lives of soldiers, scholars, artists, scientists, philosophers and political and religious leaders. The shift towards agriculture provided immense opportunities for civilizations—thinkers and creators were born out of this new unencumbered time. Humanity created masterpieces, applied science to uncover some of life’s greatest mysteries, considered philosophy and morality, and invented life-saving, groundbreaking tools and technology.

            The underside of this shift is that while agriculture initially advanced human development, it quickly became profit-focused, environmentally destructive, and exploitative, and caused a loss of human connection to what sustains us. It spurred the formation of classes within society, land was now “owned,” currency began to circulate, more food was given to some than others. Resources were no longer considered to be everyone’s equally. A hierarchy had been established that still exists today in many different forms.

Many scientists have noted that the origins of malnutrition, social inequality and military conflict also correlate with the dawning of agriculture. Some go so far as to wonder whether or not tilling the soil was humankind’s first big mistake.
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