July 19, 2012
A surprising fact about the Neolithic revolution is that, according to most evidence, agriculture brought about a steep decline in the standard of living. Studies of Kalahari Bushmen and other nomadic groups show that hunter-gatherers, even in the most inhospitable landscapes, typically spend less than twenty hours a week obtaining food. By contrast, farmers toil from sunup to sundown. Because agriculture relies on the mass cultivation of a handful of starchy crops, a community’s whole livelihood can be wiped out overnight by bad weather or pests. Paleontological evidence shows that, compared with hunter-gatherers, early farmers had more anemia and vitamin deficiencies, died younger, had worse teeth, were more prone to spinal deformity, and caught more infectious diseases, as a result of living close to other humans and to livestock. A study of skeletons in Greece and Turkey found that the average height of humans dropped six inches between the end of the ice age and 3000 B.C.; modern Greeks and Turks still haven’t regained the height of their hunter-gatherer ancestors...From Elif Batuman in the New Yorker, on Göbekli Tepe, which I went looking for after watching How to Grow a Planet.
Why would anyone stick with such a miserable way of life? Jared Diamond... describes the situation as a classic bait-and-switch. Hunter-gatherers were "seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production." By then they were locked in - they had to farm more and more land just to keep everyone alive. Deriving strength from their large, poorly nourished numbers, the farmers gradually killed off most of the hunter-gatherers and drove the rest from their land. Diamond considers agriculture to be not just a setback but "the worst mistake in the history of the human race," the origin of "the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence."
Was the Neolithic revolution really a "curse" on our existence? The high emotional and political stakes of this question were manifested in a cover article in Der Spiegel in 2006, which proposed Göbekli Tepe as the historical site of the Garden of Eden... Evidence for the identification with Eden included Göbekli Tepe’s position between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the copious snake imagery, and Schmidt’s characterization of the region as "a paradise for hunter-gatherers." But the theory really draws its power from a reading of the Fall as an allegory for the shift from hunting-and-gathering to farming. In Eden, man and woman lived as companions, unashamed of their nakedness, surrounded by friendly animals and by "trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food." The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, like the first fruits of cultivation, brought on an immediate, irrevocable curse. Man now had to work the earth, to eat of it all the days of his life. According to Maimonides, there are legends in which Adam, after the Fall, went on to write "several works about agriculture."
God’s terrible words to Eve - "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" - may refer to a decline in women’s health and status produced, in early agricultural societies, by the economic need to have children who would till and inherit the land. Women, having access to goat’s milk and cereal, may have weaned their children earlier, resulting in more frequent, more debilitating pregnancies. The institution of private property, meanwhile, made paternal certainty a vital concern, and monogamy, particularly for women, was strictly enforced.
To continue the interpretation, the story of Cain and Abel may be taken as an illustration of the zero-sum game of primogeniture, as well as an allegory for the slaughter of nomadic pasturage by urban agriculture. Having killed his brother, Cain goes on to found the world’s first city and name it after his son Enoch. Read in this spirit, large chunks of the Old Testament - the territorial feuds, the constant threat of exile or extinction, the sexual jealousy and sibling rivalry - begin to resemble the handbook for a grim new scarcity economy of land and love.