The Advent of Agriculture and the Beginning of Settlement

An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore

As hominids evolved and gained more knowledge and experience with their habitat, they began to experiment with growing their own food and agriculture was initiated. (P. 22, Russell) The first indication of agricultural practices dates back more than 20,000 years. It has been previously thought that agriculture was only about 10,000 years old but more recent archeological finds indicate evidence of farming at over 20,000 years ago and evidence of advanced settlements with large permanent structures, sophisticated tools and art. The first attempts to increase their food supply was to encourage increased output of desired plants in the wild by pruning, clearing competing plants away, some primitive forms of irrigation when needed, burning foliage to encourage new growth by enriching the soil and other forms of cultivation.

Farming did not occur as a conscious choice as there was no farming in nature to imitate. It was much more experimental in nature and developed through observation of how plants grew and replicated themselves. Some early humans did not desire to employ farming and remained hunters and gatherers but did some trading with farming tribes to supplement their food supply. Others experimented and traded seeds and methods, which helped spread the practice of agriculture across the continents. Over a long period of time involving thousands of years, agriculture eventually became the primary way of obtaining nutrition from the environment.

The shift to farming and domesticating animals that followed agriculture has been described as a piecemeal set of circumstances. Some theorists suggest climate changes and other factors made foraging more difficult. Some animals were hunted to extinction and certain flora, were also over utilized such that gathering became more difficult. In some regions, however, flora became more prolific and encouraged a shift towards a fruit, grain and vegetable-oriented diet. Agriculture and hunting and gathering became competing sources of food procurement that shifted back and forth as different types of food sources became more available. Thus, there was no clear or definitive pattern for the change from foraging to farming but as natural food resources became depleted due to population growth and increased nutritional intake, the shift towards agriculture became more apparent and eventually superseded hunting and gathering.

Other factors apply as well. Nomadic life had its own set of problems such as the ability to find suitable shelter, water, food and other resources as well as safety issues from animals and environmental conditions. Constantly moving large numbers of individuals presented arduous logistical tasks as well. The ability to cultivate plants reduced the need to migrate to hunt and gather and more permanent settlement became possible. Also, more food could be obtained by farming than by hunting and farmed products could be stored for future use as well.

It is commonly thought that hunter-gatherers were children of the earth, were connected to its ebb and flow, had respect for the totality of life and considered the Earth to be their home. This portrayal is predicated on the fact that early humans have left evidence that they did conserve resources, tended to hunt and gather for food as needed, utilized available resources pragmatically and valued leisure time to devote to family, ceremonies and religious rituals. This notion has also been exaggerated to some extent to rebuke the destruction of nature by modern man and to give preference to their lifestyle as an example of where we went wrong.

Many scientists and historians however, think that early humans did what was necessary to survive, without either a motive for conquest or adequate knowledge of safe environmental practices.

Given their small initial populations, it is unlikely that extensive deterioration of the environment could have been caused by mere agriculture and grazing, although it is suspected that some such damage was indeed rendered, especially with the use of fire to clear land for farming. Despite a lack of concrete historical evidence, I believe that a mixture of survival needs and connection with their habitat provided the impetus for their decisions and actions. I feel strongly about this because numerous primitive indigenous cultures that still exist today tend to maintain a healthy relationship with their surroundings and have been noted to employ sustainable living as a practice of their culture. Eastern societies have also been historically more oriented towards environmentally responsible practices and feeling connected with the Earth.

Agriculture was a significant advancement as populations could now search for more suitable or preferred habitats and create permanent settlements. This arrangement allowed for the designing and construction of more sophisticated and safer shelters that could accommodate large populations in a communal setting. This, in turn, led to increased interaction, communication and the learning and sharing of information that speeded up cultural development. This process continued and eventually resulted in the formation of more and more complex societies that comprised governing bodies, armies, social structures, religions and simple economic systems. This encouraged communication, learning, education, the development of societal norms and mores, religion, art, philosophy, science, psychology, medicine, technology and economics. As learning and knowledge continued to increase, all the mentioned factors advanced the standards of living and more time could be devoted to family and cultural endeavors as well.

Agriculture, thus initiated the practice of utilizing the environment to maintain an adequate food supply for growing populations. This resulted in an incremental increase in environmental degradation that became proportional to the rise in population and consequent agricultural activities. Slash and burn techniques caused deforestation, erosion of valuable topsoil and the vanishing of available land for farming. Eventually, the practice of repeatedly using the same plots of land was employed but keeping the soil replenished was difficult without modern fertilizers and domesticated animals did not provide enough manure to provide adequate fertilization either.

Agriculture also introduced a new concept: ownership of the land, food and animals by individuals and their respective tribes, societies and organizations. The act of tending to crops and herding animals gave humans the impression that their efforts and labor entitled them to take possession of the Earth’s resources for their own interests. This attitude led to land ownership disputes and much conflict as fertile farming land became scarce due to the amount of food needed by a given group of people. Intense battles over land acquisition became prevalent and the need for a developed military system to procure land and resources became a new pattern of behavior. This change, utilizing aggression to acquire natural resources, has led to the rise and fall of many cultures, large and small, throughout history and is still a prevalent practice of modern societies.

Specialization also began to occur with some of the population engaging in religion, government, the manufacture of tools and weapons and the establishment of military bodies. These developments resulted in an ever-increasing negative impact on local ecosystems. In addition to what has just been mentioned, a change in attitudes ensued, from one of dependence on nature to one of significantly more independence and the impression that the environment could be managed and manipulated primarily for the proliferation of the human species without regard for degradation to their habitat.

When settlements became significantly large, farming, the building of living structures, the use of fire for cooking, and heating and making tools and weapons depleted the local forests. The damaged forests allowed erosion to occur and the valuable topsoil eroded or blew away. This also affected the water table and caused the land to become arid. So, overshoot and using natural resources without adequate knowledge of how local ecosystems function led to significant environmental degradation. All these factors eventually caused the failure of almost all civilizations throughout history and this phenomenon is still a looming danger to our modern societies as well. 

In summary, agriculture had a profound effect upon the way humanity developed into complex civilizations as well as being instrumental in determining their lifestyles, politics, economics, ideologies and their interactions with their environment. Unfortunately, the means humans employed to feed themselves has resulted in significant habitat degradation throughout history and continues to be one of the most difficult problems modern societies face today.

References:

Russell, Peter. Waking up in Time, Levers for the Mind, p. 22. Origin Press Inc., 1122 Grant Ave., Suite C, Novato, CA  94945, Copyright 1992 by Peter Russell.

Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance, Ecology and the Human Spirit, Seeds of Privation, pp.126-127. © by al Gore 1992, Rodale Inc.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel, To Farm or Not to Farm, pp. 104-113. W. W. Norton and Company, NY and London, 1997.

Oosthoek, K. Jan. “Environmental History – Between Science and Philosophy.” Environmental History Resources, dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/6328/philosophy.html?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Devall, Bill and Sessions, George. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, The Minority Tradition and Direct Action, p. 21.1985 by Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World, Ninety-nine Per Cent of Human History, pp. 19-20, 53-54, 68-69. 1991, St Martin’s Press, NY.

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