How the Agricultural Revolution made us inequal

The history of trading equality for food.

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  • Modern society is possible because of the Agricultural Revolution.
  • But it did require us to give up something that we have yet to recover, even today: egalitarianism.
  • Today, food surpluses are actually a sign of big inequality. And the reason is more

Despite the racks of meat at my deli, the aisles of canned goods at my grocery store, and the dewy lettuce at my farmer's market, some researchers contend that deciding to farm was one of the worst decisions humanity ever made. For the vast majority of human existence, we hunted and gathered. In doing so, we enjoyed a varied diet that took shockingly little work to obtain compared to farming.

When the Agricultural Revolution occurred, the combination of overcrowding of both humans and domesticated animals and switching to an unvaried cereal- and grain-based diet caused an assortment of health issues. By examining the skeletons of early farmers and late hunter-gatherers, we can see that we lost about five inches of height, which we only recovered in the 20th century. These bones also showed greater signs of diseases and illness, and early farmers lived shorter lives than hunter-gatherers.

On its face, the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was a bad thing is patently ridiculous. Modern society is possible because of the Agricultural Revolution, and other researchers are quick to point out that the hunter-gatherer way of life was very violent. Compared to modern life, the difference between how miserable people were as early farmers and how miserable people were as hunter-gatherers is very slight.

While researchers still debate how costly the transition to agriculture was, it did require us to give up something that we have yet to recover, even today: egalitarianism.

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism 

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Fog spreads across an agriculture field in the early morning on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Lahore on December 4, 2014.

Unfortunately, we don't have time machines to travel back 12,000 years to the point in time before the Agricultural Revolution, but that doesn't mean we can't get an accurate picture of the difference between the hunter-gatherer and agricultural life.

One method is to look at existing hunter-gatherer societies. The !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert (the exclamation point stands for a clicking sound) demonstrate a sexual egalitarianism that one wouldn't necessarily expect from a nomadic tribe. While men tend to hunt and women tend to gather, these roles often overlap. Women retain control over the food they gather. Both men and women raise children equally. Studies on other contemporary hunter-gatherer societies show a similar degree of sexual equality.

Among the Hadza of Tanzania, the !Kung, and other nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, resources are shared equally. The concept of ownership, when it exists, generally takes the form of being associated with a place or thing rather than possessing it. Hunted or gathered food is shared equally among all members of the tribe. Sometimes, a chief or elder individual will be responsible for divvying out the food, but this authority figure receives as much as the other tribe members. Generally, individuals who attempt to assert dominance or establish a leadership position are ridiculed and ostracized. From what we can tell, these practices hold true for ancient hunter-gatherers as well.

The rise of agriculture and inequality

SLEONE-WOMEN-DAY-PACKAGEKadiatu Kalloko, 60, poses in her farm on March 4, 2018 in the village of Pakari, near Makeni in Sierre Leone. / AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

These egalitarian qualities were not present in early agricultural societies. The big advantage of agriculture over hunting and gathering is that it enables the production of food surpluses. But agriculture is fickle. When the weather is unfavorable, or plants become diseased, hunter-gatherers shift to another food source. This can't be done in agricultural societies, which rely on a small selection of crops produced on large scales. For a relatively recent example, consider the Irish Potato Famine.

Not only are food surpluses necessary for agricultural societies to survive, they also become highly desirable to control. In fact, recent research shows that ancient societies that had greater food surpluses tended to have higher levels of inequality.

Labor roles became more gendered as well. Generally, men did the majority of the fieldwork while women were relegated to child-rearing and household work. Without contributing food (and by association, without control over it), women became second-class citizens. Women also had babies more frequently, on average once every two years rather than once every four in hunter-gatherer societies.

Because somebody had to have control over surplus food, it became necessary to divide society into roles that supported this hierarchy. The roles of an administrator, a servant, a priest, and a soldier were invented. The soldier was especially important because agriculture was so unsustainable compared to hunting and gathering. The fickleness of agriculture ironically encouraged more migration into neighboring lands in search of more resources and warfare with neighboring groups. Capturing slaves was also important since farming was hard work, and more people were working in these new roles.

This division of labor and social inequality had very real consequences. For instance, while the majority of people had disastrous health compared to their hunter-gatherer ancestors, the skeletons of Mycenean royalty had better teeth and were three inches taller than their subjects. Chilean mummies from A.D. 1000 had a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease than commoners.

Black Friday shoppingSOUTH PORTLAND, ME - NOVEMBER 24: Shoppers enter Target in South Portland shortly after the store opened its doors on Friday morning. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff photographer)

Although our quality of life has improved remarkably, the degree of inequality in our society has not. It's easy to contradict the argument that hunter-gatherer societies were better by strolling into your local supermarket, but then again, you're probably reading this in one of the wealthier places in the world. Plenty of people on Earth still live under unbelievably harsh conditions despite the unprecedented level of wealth we have. Consider the disparity between Japan's expected lifespan and Sierra Leone's: 83.7 years versus 50.1. That's a 40% gap.

Does this mean we should do what we've done for the vast majority of human history and retreat to the bush, forsake material possessions, and live off the land? Of course not. But it does highlight that inequality is not humanity's natural state, even though its one we've lived in since the invention of agriculture 12,000 years ago.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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