Reading a book by Mark Nathan Cohen, I came across an interesting theory about agriculture and the first steps of this sedentary way of life which seems to have its origins in the year 10,000 BC onward. Life during palaeolithic times seemed to have been based on hunting and gathering economies. Human beings lived in really extensive areas which were exploited to obtain food. According to this theory, groups of humans lived from hunting big game animals and from gathering different fruits, tuberculous and other seasonal plants. These groups of hunters moved around vast stretches of terrain in search of those large mammals. They inhabited areas for short periods of time, as they moved in search of animals and seasonal plants continuously. Obtaining game animals provided the group with enough food to feed entire families for one or two weeks. It is thought that lots of these human groups were surviving mainly on meat. Vegetable gathering was an activity that supplied extra energy, but not a main resource for survival.
The author of the book looks at periods in which the human population wasn’t large. During these times, humans were inhabiting mainly mild weather areas, what is now the Sahara desert, or the middle part of North America for example. These temperate areas supported big game animals such as buffaloes or gazelles for example. These big game animals were hunted and their meat provided enough proteins for humans.
But as today, population growth may have put a lot of strain on the wild animal life that inhabited the planet. Humans living on hunting and gathering economies needed huge extensions of terrain to survive as they had to be in constant movement. This was essential to allow areas to develop, plants to emerge and for animals to reproduce. When population grew, those areas needed to be shared by more human groups, and those groups required more animal meat, thus reducing the overall food available.
After years of human pressure on big game animals, the populations of these large animals decreased. Then human groups were forced to choose other sort of animal life to hunt. They had to choose other types of animals, specially smaller prey, that could provide them the necessary food for survival. Some human groups turned to fish, shells and molluscs. Other human groups turned to smaller animals, such as wild pigs or rodents for example.
It is thought that unlike in our days, in those times humans did not like eating sea food and therefore were reluctant to have the fruits of the sea as part of their diets. It is the need and the reduction of other animals, that forced humans to start feeding themselves from these sea food and small animals. Probably the constraints supported by population growth forced whole human groups into areas which were situated south in the tropics or north near the poles. Some of these populations were forced to move towards the coast, and because of this, sea food became an option for survival.
Not surprisingly, in various areas such as East Asia, North East Africa or Central America, domestication of plants and animals started to appear. The constraint on space and available food may have been key factors in the change from an economy that was mainly nomadic, to one that slowly became sedentary. Whole human groups started living from herding, domesticating different animals such as cows, sheep or goats, or the domestication of plants. This is not a process that happened suddenly, indeed, it was a long process. First, humans turned into smaller games, provably complementing it with some gathering. Then, they turned into sea food. But as human population grew, and the available food had to be shared among more, they provably started to look at other options like it could be the domestication of animals and plants.
The evidence that this theory is based on is the origins of agriculture which seemed to have happened at a similar period in the whole world. It was around the year 10,000 BC that we started seeing the first forms of agriculture in areas of Venezuela, areas around the Nile river, or around the Tigris and Euphrates, in the Mesopotamian valleys.
Agriculture was then not a choice nor was it an easier way of survival. It is believed that hunting and gathering economies provided with a greater variety of food. These economies required less human effort than farming. Agriculture was the result of population growth and its effect on the reduction of animal and plant available for consumption. Some of those hunters-gatherers were forced to look at options for survival. Human competition and food scarcity had spread around the globe.
It is also believed that while hunters and gatherers lived around the areas where sedentary ways of life were established, there was some sort of mutualism and cooperativism amongst those different economies. Both groups would have benefited from this. Both groups shared same areas and they were able to exchange products. Farmers had surplus amounts of domesticated cereals or legumes for example, which could be exchanged for wild hunted animals or simply for human work in harvesting periods. Probably, groups progressively moved into a sedentary ways of life and slowly farmers would spread in many regions around the planet.
Based on the book “The Food Crisis in Prehistory” by Mark Nathan Cohen.