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History’s Biggest Fraud


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Part II: The Agricultural Revolution

 Our fifth lecture of the course started Part two of the course, “The Agricultural Revolution”. Moving forward in the history of the Homo sapiens to about 12,000 years ago Dr. Yuval Noah Harari explains how people in the Middle East, China, and Central America began domesticating plants and animals. He theorises that Homo sapiens, were domesticated in this process, abandoning a life of hunting and gathering for the pleasures and discomforts of agriculture. For most people, the discomforts outweighed the pleasures. The Agricultural Revolution made the life of the average person harder. The lectures investigate why it occurred. These are my notes from the course videos.

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The first part of the course dealt with the evolution of different human species, the cognitive revolution and life and deeds of our sapiens forefathers. We also looked at the impact the impact the ancient hunter gatherers had upon the world ecology, animals and plants. Sapiens, who lived 30,000 years ago already looked, thought and felt just like us. They were, probably, as intelligent, curious and sensitive and had their own share of religious revolution, artistic movements and political struggles. We don’t know much about these events due mainly to the lack of evidence but that does not mean that such things did not happen back then. Dr. Harai’s central message in the first part of this course was that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were, in many respects, better than the lives of their descendants, the peasants and workers that appeared after the agriculture revolution. This raises the question, if things were so good at the time of the hunter gatherers, why did the agricultural revolution happen?

The Agricultural Revolution

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For the first two and a half million years, humans managed very well without agriculture. They fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bread without human intervention. Even after the cognitive revolution humans did not control the lives of other animals and plants. This changed about 12,000 years ago when sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species, like wheat, potatoes, chickens and cows. From sunrise to sunset, humans, sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground, and led sheep to pasture. They thought that this would provide them with more fruit, grains, and meat. This movement from hunting and gathering to investing more and more time in controlling the lives and production of plants and animals was an unprecedented revolution in the way that humans lived. We call this revolution the Agricultural Revolution, the revolution of the transition to agriculture.

This transition occurred for the first time around 9000 to 9500 BC in the hill country of South Eastern Turkey, Western Iran, and the Levant. Scholars once believed that agriculture began only in this area in the Middle East and from there spread all around the world. Today scholars agree that agriculture sprang up in several different parts of the world independently. People in Central America, China, New Guinea, and several other places domesticated plants and animals independently.  There are theories about why it happened in those few places, The Middle East, China, Central America and New Guinea, and not in other places like Australia, or Alaska, or South Africa. It might be that most species of plants and animals are simply not good candidates for domestication. Of the thousands of species that our ancestors hunted and gathered only a few were suitable candidates for domestication, for farming and herding, those few species lived in particular areas like the Middle East and Central America. If you’re interested in more details Dr. Harari recommended a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel written by Jared Diamond

Common misconceptions

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The agricultural revolution was not only once thought to have begun in a single place, the Middle East, but it was also thought to be a great leap forward for human kind. People used to argue that evolution gradually produced more and more intelligent people and as people became more intelligent they were able to understand better how plants and how animals reproduce. This enabled people to start taming and controlling sheep, goats, chickens, wheat, potatoes and so forth. As soon as this occurred they gladly abandoned the difficult and dangerous life of hunter-gatherers and settled down to enjoy the pleasant and much easier life, or farmers. This is what many people used to think a few decades ago, even today many people who are not familiar with the recent advances in science still believe this. But this story is total fantasy.

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There is no evidence that people became more intelligent around the time of the Agricultural Revolution. Hunter-gatherers already knew the secrets of nature, how plants and animals reproduced long before the Agricultural Revolution. Their survival depended on intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted, and the plants they gathered and ate. It’s completely wrong to think that the agricultural evolution began because people became smarter, and discovered things about animals and plants that they didn’t know before. Similarly more importantly, it is a mistake to think that the transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural was something that improved human standards of living. Compared with the lives of most peasants, the ancient hunter gatherers enjoyed a better life. They enjoyed a healthier diet, worked fewer hours, and spent their time doing much more interesting things than the peasants. They were less in danger of starvation, of disease, and probably even less in danger of human violence.

The agricultural revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of human kind but this did not translate into a better diet or a better life. Rather it translated into a demographic explosion and into pampered elites. Kings, nobleman, priests and so-forth ate all the extra food. The average peasant in a small village worked harder than the average forager thousands of years previously and got in return a worse diet. The agricultural revolution from this perspective turned out to be the biggest fraud in history.

The wheat did It.

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It wasn’t Kings, noblemen, priests or merchants who were responsible for the fraud of the agriculture revolution. The real culprits were a handful of plant species, such as wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated homo-sapiens for their advantage, rather than vice versa. Now this sounds outrageous, but think for a moment, try to think about the agricultural revolution from the view point of wheat, potatoes and rice rather than the view point of humans. Let’s take wheat for example. 10,000 years ago wheat was just one of many wild grasses that grew in some small areas in the Middle East. Suddenly within just a few short millennium you find wheat growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction wheat over the last 10,000 years has, from an insignificant weed, become one of the most successful plants in the history of planet Earth. 10,000 year ago there was not a single wheat plant in the big plains of North America. Today you can walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres and not encounter anything except wheat, no trees, animals or even houses, just fields upon fields of wheat.

How exactly did wheat do it? How come it now covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of the island of Britain when 10,000 years ago it grew just in a few small places in the Middle East. Wheat did it by manipulating homo sapiens. This ape, homo sapiens, had been living a pretty comfortable life, hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago and suddenly began investing more and more time and effort in cultivating wheat, in helping wheat. Within quite a short time, humans, in many, many parts of the world, were doing almost nothing from dawn until sunset other than taking care of wheat and helping wheat to spread itself over the world.

What did humans do for wheat?

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    Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles in the fields, because it hampered growth so homo sapiens broke their backs going to the fields and taking all the rocks and pebbles out of the field to clear a space for wheat.

  • Wheat didn’t like sharing its water or nutrients in the ground, with other plants so people laboured hard for many days and weeks, weeding other plants out of the field.
  • Wheat was defenceless against all kinds of organisms that liked to eat it like worms, locusts, rabbits and deer, so humans spent also a lot of effort to protect wheat. They built fences; they killed the rabbits, worms and locusts to protect the wheat.
  • Wheat was still thirsty and hungry so humans broke their backs and legs for many hours each day, carrying water from springs and streams to the field or digging wells and taking water to the wheat. They collected faeces from animals and themselves to spread over the field and nourish the earth.

The body of homo-sapiens did not evolve for such tasks. The body was adapted to climbing apple trees and picking apples, or to running after gazelles and rabbits in the forest. The human body is not adapted to all this back breaking toil. The human body, the spine, knees and necks paid a very high price. There is a lot of evidence from ancient skeletons that archaeologists have found, that indicate very clearly that the transition from a life of hunting and gathering to a life of agriculture brought about many new problems and ailments such as slipped discs, backaches, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, all of these new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to the wheat field completely changing their way of life.

We often say that we humans domesticated wheat but in fact, it is wheat that domesticated us. The word to domesticate comes from the Latin word domus meaning house. To domesticate somebody or something means to make him live in a house. Wheat is still growing in the fields. It is humans that have been domesticated.

What did wheat do for humans?

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How did wheat actually do it? How did wheat convince homo-sapiens to change a rather good relatively pleasant life to a much more difficult life of living as peasants?

It’s very clear that wheat did not offer people a better diet. Humans are omnivorous apes; they thrive by eating a very wide variety of different food stuffs. Grains, like wheat made up only a small fraction of the human diet before the agricultural revolution. A diet based on mainly on grains and cereals is poor in minerals and vitamins. It’s hard to digest and is really bad for your teeth, gums, body, and digestive systems.

Wheat did not offer people economic security. The life of a peasant is usually less secure than the life of a hunter gatherer. Peasants, hundreds of years ago, subsisted mainly by growing and eating very few types of plants. In China they ate mainly rice. In the Middle East they grew and ate barley and wheat. In Central America they ate mainly maize. This one source food supply is a very insecure basis for the economy, the private person and the collective. If there is some calamity such as drought, flooding, or some parasite that destroys the animal, wheat, or rice crop there was nothing else to eat and peasants died in their thousands or even millions. In contrast, hunter, gatherers enjoyed better economic security, because they gathered and hunted and ate a lot of different food stuffs. If there was some calamity and one particular food stuff became scarce they could hunt or gather larger quantities of other things.

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Wheat did not offer better security against human violence, just the opposite. The early farmers in the villages and towns were probably as violent as or even more violent than their forager ancestors. In the transition to agriculture humans had less room for compromise in their conflicts and confrontations. When a foraging band came into conflict with a stronger band they could usually move on to a different place. It might be difficult, or even dangerous, but, in general, it was feasible. However, in the case of peasants of agricultural villages and towns, when a strong enemy threatened an agricultural village retreat, going somewhere else meant giving up the fields, the houses and the granaries. This might doom the refugees to death by starvation. The best thing to do, the only thing to do was to fight to the bitter end.

Many anthropological and archaeological studies indicate that in simple agricultural societies human violence was responsible for about 15% of all human death, including 25% of male death. In an ancient agricultural village say 8,000 years ago, the chance of the men to die at the hands of another man was 25%, other people were probably the biggest danger to their lives. Today it’s about 1.5 or even 1% or less, depending on where you live, 8000 years ago it was 25%. Violence eventually was lowered, was brought under control, by the development of larger social framework, like cities, kingdoms and empires, but it took thousands of years to build such huge and effective political structures.

The benefits of wheat

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This is hard for people today in the prosperous societies of the 21st century to appreciate, because most of us today enjoy a relatively high degree of affluence and security, compared to what most people in history enjoyed. Because our affluence and security are built on agricultural foundations, we tend to assume that the agricultural revolution was a wonderful improvement. However it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today. A much more representative view point for which to judge history, to judge the agricultural revolution is for example the perspective of a three year old peasant girl dying from malnutrition in first century China. She had a much harder life than her ancestors she did not know about us. She did not say to herself to herself okay I’m now dying from malnutrition but in 2,000 years’ time thanks to agriculture, people will have plenty to eat and will live in big, air-conditioned houses, so my sacrifice my suffering, is worthwhile. It is wrong to judge the agricultural revolution from our perspective today.

Wheat did not offer anything for people as individuals but gave something to Homo sapiens as a specie. Cultivating wheat provided much more food per unit of territory. They could get much more food using agriculture than hunting and gathering what grew naturally in the same area. The extra food enabled the number of Sapiens to grow exponentially and enabled many more people to live in the same territory. Jericho, for example in what today is Palestine was one of the first villages in history. It began to grow about 9000 years ago. 13,000 years ago when people were still hunter-gatherers the area around Jericho could support perhaps one roving band of about 100 relatively healthy and satiated people. Around 8000 B.C. the wild plants around Jericho gave way to wheat fields and the area supported a more people, a village of around 1,000 people. These people were hungrier and less healthy and probably less happy than their ancestors.

Measures of Success

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Unfortunately evolution measures success not by hunger, pain, happiness, and suffering but by the numbers of copy of DNA in existence of a particular species. In the same way the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account and not by the happiness of the employees. If there are no more DNA copies of this particular species this species is extinct and it is considered a failure, an evolutionary dead end. From this perspective 1000 copies are always better than 100 copies and this is the essence of the agricultural revolution. The agricultural revolution meant the ability to keep many more people alive under worse conditions.

This doesn’t tell us why individuals would care about this evolutionary calculus, this benefit as a species as a whole nor why any sane person would agree to lower their standards of living purely to multiply the number of copies of the homo sapiens genome.  One main theory is that people really never agreed to the agricultural revolution. It was not a conscience one time decision but the accumulation of many small steps. It’s impossible to say this step or that step was the decisive transition from being hunter gatherers to being agriculturists or peasants. But it is clear that by 8500 BC The Middle East was already peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species, like barley and wheat.

Early Concepts of Disease (Credit -sph.bu.edu)

As people relied more on cultivating domesticated species and spent more and more time in the fields they had less and less time to hunt and forage. They could not wander around. At the same time the population began to grow. This was because agriculture provided more food and secondly, because giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a baby every year. Women hunter gatherers were usually careful to wait until the previous child could walk before having another baby. Peasant women could have a child every year and were encouraged to do so because there was always work to be done in the fields. The problem of course was that all the children not only had hands to work in the fields, they also had mouth and stomachs. They quickly ate all the extra food that agriculture provided.

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Moreover, infectious diseases began to spread rapidly among the growing population of peasants for several reasons.  More and more infectious diseases jumped from domesticated animals to people once people began to domesticate animals, many of these diseases began to threaten human beings. Secondly, because people began to live in villages their hygienic condition deteriorated, hunter gatherers walked around in small groups all the time and did not stay close to their waste. Peasants and town dwellers lived in much more crowded places in close proximity to waste, sick people and sick animals and therefore villages and towns quickly became hot houses for infectious diseases. Waves of epidemics began to threaten humankind.  The third why people were less healthy was because their diet was worse. Eating wheat all the time is far less nutritious than eating a varied diet. Immune systems suffered and the greatest harm was done to babies. Hunter-gatherer babies subsisted for two or three years almost exclusively on their mother’s milk and mother’s milk is the best diet for a human baby. Peasant babies, after the transition to agriculture, were weaned very early. They were fed with porridge and gruel which is a terrible diet for human babies. It doesn’t contain many things that are needed especially by the babies’ immune system. It is estimated that in most agricultural societies at least a third of the babies born died before reaching adulthood from infectious diseases. Many adults also suffered from these diseases, much more so during than during the days of hunting and gathering.

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Despite the increase in disease and death the increase in births was still more and as a result, there were more and more humans living in these villages and towns, even though they were less healthy and had a more difficult life in general.  Hence with time and the passing of the generations this wheat bargain, the bargain between Homo sapiens and wheat became more and more burdensome for homo sapiens. Children died in droves and adults had a very hard life. But nobody realized what was happening because it happened over several generations. Every generation continued to live like the one before just a little more efficiently. Paradoxically a theory of such improvements each of which was meant to make life easier, like bringing water from the well to water the wheat, each of these improvements added together to a very, very heavy burden. Why then did people make such a fateful miscalculation? Why did they make all these tiny steps of improvement that ended up to a very big burden?

History’s biggest Fraud

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They did it for the same reason that people throughout history miscalculated on many other occasions. People are simply unable to foresee the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work people thought they would have to work a little harder but in exchange, the harvest would be much more bountiful, and they wouldn’t have to worry any more about drought and lean years. This made sense the basic plan was if you worked harder you would have a much better life for yourself and for your children. The first part of the plan went smoothly, people indeed worked harder. But unforeseen factors wrecked the second part of the plan, the part about having a better life. People simply did not foresee that the number of children would increase with time and therefore, that yes they would have more bountiful harvests, more wheat, but that wheat would have to be divided between more children so each child would not receive a bigger portion than previously.

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Another thing early farmers did not understand or foresee was that feeding children with wheat instead of mother’s milk would weaken their bodies and their immune system, and that permanent settlements were hotbeds for infectious diseases and therefore that the children would actually die in larger and larger numbers from these diseases. They also did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, like wheat, they were actually exposing themselves, even more than before, to the dangers of drought. If there was a good year they had bountiful harvests, but in a bad year many of them would die of hunger. A final thing that they did not foresee is that even in good years when they had granaries bulging full of grain, the granaries would tempt thieves and enemies to come and conquer the village and steal all this food. Even in good years they has to start building walls and doing guard duties and fighting wars.

All these unforeseen factors ruined the initial plan of working harder in exchange for a better life. When the plan backfired and didn’t fulfill the expectation, why did people not simply abandon it, and go back to, to the previous way of life? One reason  is that it took generations to realize that things were not working as they had hoped. Nobody really remembered that they’d ever lived in a different way. At most, people sometimes could remember and tell their children about a time when there was far less wheat. Another reason people did not go back is that the population kept growing and growing all the time, and therefore, even if they wanted to go back, to the way that they lived in the time of their grandparents there were too many people around already living in order to do so. At the time of their grandparent there were maybe only 100 people in the village and now there were 150. So which 50 individuals would be willing to die from starvation, so that the village as a whole could go back to living as in previous generations without watering the wheat fields?

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This is how the pursuit of an easier life, the desire to have a better and easier life actually trapped human kind in in harder living conditions. This was not the last time it happened, it happened throughout history again and again and it happens even to us today. There are many people who can experience in a small way what happened to humanity in the agricultural revolution, in their own lives. For example a college student whose dream is to be a musician. But you can’t really get a lot of money by being a musician, and support yourself. So instead they study economics or computers or something that they don’t really like. The plan is to work very hard in computers for five years or eight years, and make loads of money, then when they are 30, plan to retire and be a musician. But, the same thing happens to that college students that happened to our ancestors in the agricultural revolution. The college students have this fantasy and what they don’t realize is that there are many unforeseen factors that, in 99% of the cases, will wreck their plans because yes by the time they’re 30 they have a lot of money but also have a lot of new obligations and habits. Maybe a spouse and children or a mortgage to buy a house and they are used to expensive habits like going abroad for vacations. So they keep slaving away because they can’t go back and they can’t realize the dreams that they had. This is exactly what happened to our peasant ancestors 10,000 years ago or so. It is actually one of the few, iron laws of history, and history has few laws which are always true. One of the laws which is mostly true is that luxuries tend to become necessities. Once people get used to a certain habit, to a certain condition, to a certain luxury they begin to count on it and to take it for granted and eventually they reach the position when they can’t live without it. So even something that was not essential at first, will tend with time to become essential and you can’t go back.

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Another familiar example from today, to understand how this happens, is the countless devices invented over the last few decades in order to save time and have a more efficient life. These devices, like washing machines, vacuum cleaners, mobile phones, computers and emails, we mostly think that they make our life easier. Take emails for example. Previously, to send a letter to somebody on another continent it took a lot of work to write the letter, buy an envelope and stamp, write the address, take it to the mail box or post office and pay for it. Then it took days, weeks, sometimes even months until the letter reached its destination. To send an email halfway around the globe now takes minutes and we can receive a reply very quickly saving us an awful lot of time and trouble. But do we actually live a more relaxed life, thanks to the invention of emails? We write and receive dozens of emails each day and people expect a reply to their emails very quickly. We spend more and more time reading and answering emails every day.

There are people who refuse to open an email account, they don’t want to get into the rat race and there is nothing new about that. If you went back thousands of years to the time of the agricultural revolution, you would have found that not all human bands made this transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. There were bands who did not want to give up their lives and to start growing crops. But the agricultural revolution didn’t require every band to join in. Once one band settled down and started to till fields and harvest wheat, whether it was in the Middle East or in Central America, agriculture in that part of the world was irresistible. Farming created the conditions for swift demographic growth for a population explosion, and therefore the numbers of farmers multiplied far more quickly than the number of foragers. When it came to conflict, farmers could almost always win simply by the force of numbers. Foragers could either move to a different place and abandon their territory or choose to become farmers themselves in order to compete with their enemies. Either way the old way of life of hunting and gathering was doomed.

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The story of the agricultural revolution, this luxury trap, the attempt to improve life that ends up making life more difficult, carries with it a very important lesson for humanity. Humanity’s search for an easier life releases immense forces of change that transforms the world in ways that nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody really envisioned or wanted the agricultural revolution. It happened because it was a series of trivial decisions, and mostly, just to fill a few stomachs with a little more food, and to gain a little security. These decisions taken together resulted in our ancestors changing their way of life completely. Such things happened again and again in history. History is full of a train of trivial decisions that lead to big and unforeseen results, and history’s full of far more idiotic miscalculations than those that the first farmers made.

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The story of the agricultural revolution thus carries, carries with it a very important message or lesson, to human kind. Humans always look for ways to make their lives a bit easier. Sometimes this releases forces of change that completely transform the world and result, among other things, in making the lives of human actually harder than before. Another important message is, it is extremely difficult to foresee all the results of our actions and all the factors which, in order to make really good decisions, we need to take into account, it’s very difficult to foresee the future, especially when doing something that transforms the economy and society in the ways that people lived. The agricultural revolution was not planned or envisioned by anybody. It just was the accidental result of a series of very, very small and trivial decisions that accumulated together to transform the world.

There is, however, an alternative explanation to the way that the agricultural revolution happened. It suggests it was not the search for an easier and more comfortable life rather it was the attempt to fulfill some kind of cultural or religious aspiration. Maybe people 12,000 years ago were fully aware of the sacrifices that agriculture demanded and they were consciously willing to make these sacrifices for the sake of some great ideal. It’s difficult to tell what the cultural ideals and religious beliefs of people at the time were, however, archaeologists discovered one truly amazing site which gives credence to this explanation, and which sheds interesting light on the way that, the transition to agriculture happened.

Gobekli Tepe

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In the year 1995 archaeologists began to excavate a site in South Eastern Turkey called Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill). In the lowest, the oldest, strata of the site, they discovered no signs of settlement like houses or daily activities, but they did discover monumental structures with huge pillars decorated with spectacular engravings. You can see on the left a picture of the remains of one of these monumental structures. Altogether, archaeologists have uncovered about 10 such structures, the largest of which is nearly 30 meters across, and there might be others around. Here you can see one of the many decorated stone pillars that supported these huge structures. Each of these stone pillars weighed up to seven tons and reached a height of up to five meters. The pillars are covered with beautiful engravings of animals and mythical creatures.

Archaeologists are familiar with such monumental structures from various sites around the world. The best known of them is Stonehenge in Britain. Yet as scholars began to study the monumental structures of the Gubekli Tepe they discovered an amazing fact. Stonehenge dates from about 2500 BC and was built by a developed agricultural society of peasants and herders. In contrast the structures at Gobekli Tepe are dated to about 9500 BC, 7,000 years before Stonehenge and all the available evidence indicates that the people who built it were hunter gatherers. The archaeological community at first found it very hard to credit these findings. But they did one test after another and all the tests confirmed the early date of the structures and the pre-agricultural nature of the people who build them. So it seems that the key abilities of ancient foragers and the complexity of those societies and cultures were much more impressive than scholars had previously suspected.

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These amazing structures did not have a utilitarian purpose. They were not traps for animals and or places to shelter people from rain or to hide from lions. In all likelihood these structures had some cultural or religious purpose that archaeologists simply don’t know. They’ve had a hard time to understand it, because there isn’t enough evidence. However, whatever the purpose of the structures was, foragers believed in these cultural or religious purposes enough to invest a huge amount of time and effort building Gobekli Tepe. The only way to build it was for thousands of foragers belonging to different bands, perhaps even different tribes to cooperate together for many years or even decades. Only a very sophisticated religious or ideological system could sustain and motivate such efforts. This is one amazing thing about Gobekli Tepe, it hints at hunter gatherers having some religion or ideology that prompted them to invest all this effort.

Gobekli Tepe had an even more sensational secret hidden in its depth and this involved the transition to agriculture. For many years, geneticists who studied the DNA of cultivated wheat, wanted to know where and when wheat was cultivated for the first time. Recent discoveries comparing cultivated wheat to all kinds of wild wheat indicate that at least one variant was cultivated for the first time in the Karacadag Mountain in south-eastern Turkey, about 30 kilometres away from Gobekli Tepe.

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This cannot be mere coincidence; it is very likely that the cultural centre at Gobekli Tepe was somehow closely connected to the initial domestication of wheat by human kind and the initial domestication of human kind by wheat. The leading theory argues that, in order to feed the people who built and then used the monument, humans needed particularly large quantities of food. It may have been that foragers there in about 9,500 BC switched from gathering wild wheat to intense cultivation not in order to make their lives easier nor to increase the normal supply of food, but, to support the building and maintaining of this cultural centre of this temple perhaps. Conventional pictures assume that villages come before temples, but Gobekli Tepe suggests that at least in some cases the temple was built first. Archaeologists are still excavating the Gobekli Tepe site and hopefully we will have a much better picture of what happened there and of the people who built it, in the next few years. Whatever the information they find at this site it will still not explain the agricultural revolution in America or in China. It may prove that the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture could have occurred at least in some areas due to cultural reasons not due to economic and demographic pressures.

The role of animals in the agricultural revolution

The third party involved in this deal of agriculture in addition to humans and plants are the animals. The domestication of humans and plants was accompanied by the domestication of animals such as goats, sheep, pigs and chickens.

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One theory about how humans domesticated animals is that it began with selective hunting. Humans who hunted wild sheep, for example, learned that it was to their advantage to be very selective in their hunting to kill mainly the adult rams, the males and the old or sick sheep and to spare fertile females and the young lambs. The second step was protection from rival bands and lions but the sheep were still wild sheep. Next were steps of confinement to control their movements. The final step was more careful selection among the sheep in order to adapt them to human needs. For example, the most aggressive rams that show the greatest resistance to the human intervention in the life of the herd were the ones who were slaughtered first. The female who were the most inquisitive they were killed first because Shepard’s found curious sheep who wonder around and have their own ideas about how to run their own lives difficult to control. With each passing generation the sheep now controlled by humans became fatter, more submissive, less curious and they became domesticated sheep.

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Another theory, quite similar, but still different in some respects, says that it all began when hunters caught and adopted a lamb. Fattening it for some weeks or months when there was plenty of food. When there was not enough food around, they killed it and ate it. It was a kind of insurance. At some stage, hunters began to keep a greater number of such lambs all the time, in case there was some trouble in getting other kinds of food. Some of these lambs grew and they reached puberty and began to procreate. When people had all these sheep that they controlled, they preferred to slaughter the most aggressive and most unruly sheep first. The most submissive, more appealing sheep were allowed to live a bit a longer and procreate. Over the generations you had a herd of domesticated and submissive sheep that humans shaped for their own needs. Roughly the same thing probably happened with other animals like goats, cows, chickens and horses.

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Such domesticated animals were important to people because they provided them with food like meat, milk and eggs. They also provided humans with raw materials like skins and wool. They provided humans more and more with muscle power for transportation, ploughing the fields, grinding grains and other tasks which humans previously had to do themselves. As humans spread around the world so their domesticated animal spread with them. At the beginning of the agricultural revolution you would have found not more than a few million sheep, a few million cattle, goats, pigs and chickens in the whole world. They were mostly restricted to certain areas in Afro-Asia. Today, in contrast, the world contains about 1 billion sheep, about 1 billion pigs, about 1.5 billion cattle and more than 25 billion chickens and they are everywhere. The domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl, the most widespread bird ever to live on Earth. Domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world after, of course, homo sapiens.

(Credit – birdienl.livejournal.com)

From a narrow evolutionary perspective which measures the success of a species by the number of DNA copies the agricultural revolution was a wonderful success for chickens, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Unfortunately, the evolutionary perspective is an incomplete measure of success because it judges everything simply by the criteria of survival and reproduction and DNA copies and gives no importance to questions of individual suffering and individual happiness. Domesticated chickens and cattle may very well been an evolutionary success story in terms of DNA, but at the same time they are among the most miserable creatures that ever lived on Earth. The domestication of animals, even though it was a huge success in terms of spreading them around, was founded on a series of brutal practices that became only more and more cruel and brutal as the centuries and millennia passed. The natural life span of the wild chicken is about seven to 12 years. The natural life span of cattle is about 20, 25 years. In the wild, most chickens and most cattle died long before that because some fox or some lion ate them. But still, they had a fair chance of living if not for 20 years at least for a respectable number of years. In contrast, the vast majority of domesticated animals are slaughtered at the age of between a few weeks and a few months because this has always been the optimal slaughtering age from an economic perspective.

The price of life

(Credit – wikimedia)

There are domesticated animals like egg laying hens, dairy cows and working animals like horses and oxen that are and were allowed to live for many more years by their human owners. The price was enslavement to and subjugation to a way of life very different to the urges and desires of the animals themselves. It’s reasonable to assume for example, that bulls preferred to spend their days wandering over the open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows and calves rather than to spend their day pulling carts and ploughing fields. In order to turn animals into obedient draft animals their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken. The aggression and the sexuality had to be contained and the freedom of movement had to be withheld. Farmers developed many techniques such as locking animals inside pens and cages, bridling animals with harnesses and leashes and training animals with the use of whips and cattle prods and so forth. Mutilating animals has also been used as method of making animals more obedient. The process of taming an animal almost always involves the castration of the males as it restrains male aggression. Also by castrating most of the males, it enables humans to selectively control the procreation of the herd. For example using the tamest bull, who is least aggressive, so that the next generation of cows and bulls will also be less aggressive and more open to human manipulation.

(Credit – Wikimedia)

On the left is a painting from an Egyptian grave made about, 1200 B.C, about 3,000 years ago. It shows a typical agricultural scene of an Egyptian peasant ploughing a field. Try to look at this picture from the view point of the oxen. The oxen are yoked to the plough. In the wild their ancestors rolled freely as they pleased in big herds with complex social structures. In contrast the castrated and domesticated ox spent most of his life under the yoke of humans alone or in pairs without much opportunity to forge social connections with other bulls and, and cows and without having the opportunity, to give expression to its social and emotional needs. When an ox could no longer pull the plough, it was simply slaughtered. When you look at this picture, note the hunched position of the Egyptian farmer himself. Much like the ox he spent his life in hard labour which is not very suited either to the body or to the mind of homo-sapiens.

Pigs in New Guinea

(Credit -whatdoireflect.files)

Let’s take another example from traditional societies about the fate of animals in agricultural societies. On the island of New Guinea, in many societies the wealth and status of a person has traditionally been measured by the number of pigs they own. People tried to accumulate as many pigs as possible. Pigs are problematic because they are very intelligent animals, one of the most intelligent animals in the world. It’s quite close to us in many ways and is difficult to control. In order to ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in certain societies in New Guinea, cut off a part of the pig’s nose snout. This caused the pig severe pain whenever he tried to sniff around. Pigs have poor eyesight and they are dependent on their sense of smell as much or even more than on their sense of sight. Pigs have a lot of difficulty finding food, or even finding their way around, without sniffing. By mutilating the pig’s snout the human owners make the pig completely dependent on them. A modern equivalent of this is the nose ring.  In another part of New Guinea they very often also take out the pig’s eyes and the people take care of all the pig’s needs, and they just stay there. In this way the pigs won’t have ideas to run away and manage by themselves.

The dairy industry

(Credit – vegansoapbox)

The dairy industry has had its own ways of controlling animals and extracting milk from animals. Cows, goats and sheep produce milk only after they give birth to calves, kids and lambs and only as long as these youngsters are suckling. Cow’s milk it is meant to feed calves so in order to ensure a continuous supply of animal milk, like cow’s milk, a farmer needs to have cows, kids and lambs for suckling. The big dilemma of the dairy industry is that on the one hand, you have to have these calves otherwise the cow would not give any milk and on the other hand, you don’t want the calves to actually drink the milk. One common method throughout history was to simply slaughter the calves shortly after they are born, milk the mother for all she was worth then immediately get her pregnant again in order to ensure the continuation of the milk supply. This is still a very widespread technique in the 21st century. In many modern dairy farms a milk cow usually lives for about five years before being slaughtered. After five years her milk production goes down and she is slaughtered. During these five years when she is alive, she’s almost constantly pregnant, being fertilized within 60 to 120 days after giving birth. The calves are separated from the cow shortly after birth. The females are usually reared to become the next generation of dairy cows and the males are handed over to the care of the meat industry.

(Credit – vegaresearch)

Another method which is common in more traditional agricultural societies is to keep the calves near their mothers but prevent them from suckling too much milk. The simplest way to do it is to allow the calf to come close to the cow, start suckling then drive it away once the milk starts flowing. This method has problems as it usually encounters resistance, both from the calf and from the mother. People in agricultural societies invented interesting tricks to solve this problem. One method was to kill the calf, eat it then stuff the skin then present the stuffed calf to the mother to encourage her milk production. In the Sudan, there was a tribe which went as far as smearing stuffed calves with the urine of their mother in order to counterfeit a familiar or live scent. Another technique was to make a ring of thorns and tie it around the mouth of the calf so that when it comes to suckle it will prick the mother and will cause the mother to resist suckling.


The agricultural revolution was a huge success for cows, chickens and pigs as a collective species, but it was a catastrophe for the animals as individuals. The gap between evolutionary success on the one hand and individual suffering on the other hand, is perhaps the most important lesson that we can draw from the agricultural revolution. When we study the story of plants the purely evolutionary perspective, which takes account only of DNA copies, maybe makes sense.  When we study the fortunes of animals, such as cattle or sheep or homo sapiens, animals with a complex world with sensations and emotions we have to consider, not only evolutionary success but also the impact on the experiences of the individuals. We see again and again, how the dramatic increase in the collective power and success of our specie, homo sapiens, went hand in hand with much individual suffering.

If you enjoy reading my notes consider making a small donation to one of these charities. No donation is too small, you could change a life.


  1. Tony Young says:

    Hi Louise. This is fantastic. I did make a donation to Room to Read which was credited to a Kerry Dwyer. Hope that makes sense. Anyway, I’m loving this course and your notes have rendered my own horrible notes quite superfluous. I’m going to throw them (mine!) away right now. And when it comes to the final exam & I’ve forgotten everything about the first 13 weeks, hey presto. Keep it going!! Tony Young

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thank you Tony. Yes the donation does make sense as my links go to the pages of two current fund raising projects. Once those are complete I will find new projects. Every little helps. Good luck with the final exam and I am glad my notes help.

  2. Stevie Carroll says:

    Thanks for your efforts Louise, it saves me a lot of time going back through the lectures. I have made a donation too in Room to Read, great cause and global education will be key to our continuing evolution!

    • Louise Taylor says:

      Thanks for your kind comment Stevie and for your contribution to one of my favorite charities. I too believe that education is the key.

  3. Anne Oplinger says:

    Thank you for your beautiful notes, Louise! I enjoyed your efforts previously (during Greek and Roman Mythology) and am finding these for History of Humankind similarly rich. I have some further information about one of the images in this section that I will share if you contact me.

    • Ken Arntsen says:

      Thank you Louise for your marvellous contribution. I have weathered three university courses and taken copious notes etc but at the age of 80 I now find this a very different proposition. I have been laboriously re-formatting and editing the subtitles while following the lecture but this takes much time and detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of the course. Do I take it that you did not do the first lecture or have I missed a link somewhere? ( I have had a stop order going for Water Aid for some time)

  4. valmir andrade says:

    Hi Louise. i’m going to keep on studying around here instead of watching the Dr. Yuval Harari’s video lectures. I’m looking forward to reading the summary of lecture 6 and further… as well . Thank you!

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