Out-wheated: was homo-sapiens fooled by wheat?

If you look closely, you can see its evil grin.

Living the good life.
working about 6 hours a day for 5 days a week max, traveling several times a year, eating only healthy organic food with an ideal food pyramid, working out and staying in great shape .
Only having to deal with friends, family and acquaintances, taking time off when you need to , having  diverse tasks instead of a monotone dayjob.

Sounds pretty good, right?
Most people would ask “how do we get there?”.
But a recent book asks the question “how and why did we lose it?”.
It also answers it in a very original way.

The book “a brief history of humanity” by Yuval Harari (only available in Hebrew so far) is a bold attempt at compacting our species’ history into 400 pages.
It argues that when humans switched from hunters-gatherers to agricultural societies, roughly 10,000 years ago, they got a raw deal.

Our species is shaped by and for hunting and gathering, we have been doing it for at least 95% of our existence and it agrees with us far more than agriculture and animal domestication does.

It turns out that our HG ancestors lived longer lives than all but our most recent farmers.
Child mortality was high but if you managed to live to the age of 5 you were probably good for another 60 to 80 years; better than your average old-time farmer who was usually a physical wreck by 50.

HGs worked less hours and less days than farmers.
As anyone can who worked on a farm can tell, reaping harvest and picking fruit is an easier and far less back-breaking task than sawing and watering  a field.
While farmers performed the same chores year in and out; HGs had dozens of smaller varied activities in different regions and climates, they were  students of all of nature and not just their backyard, setting up camp based on  seasons and the migratory cycles of animals.

They ate a much healthier diet, possibly the healthiest ever till rich California Hippies came along.
Fruits, nuts, berries, roots and cereals along with fresh rabbit and wild boar belonged on their weekly diet.
As a result they were much less susceptible to famines since they were not dependent on a very limited number of crops.
No potato blight or locusts in the valley could hurt them; they just dug up a different bulb and became upwardly mobile (moved to a mountaintop for a while).

From rats spreading the black death to primates spreading AIDS, almost all our deadly plagues have come to us from the animals we keep nearby; another problem we humans begot upon ourselves in the last 10,000 years and our foraging forefathers didn’t have.

Last and not least; they operated in a closely knit family and society; they rarely interacted with strangers and were surrounded by people who knew them and cared about them at all times.
Their groups would split up when approaching the famous Dunbar number and interaction with other tribes was limited to some trading and tip-sharing.

So why did they/we become farmers?
Like a lot of things in life the answer is : it seemed like a good idea at the time.
They figured they could work less and have more food, but being primitive men who never read a Malcolm Gladwell book they didn’t realize 3 things.

1 The extra food will not cause an increase in the quality of life as much as in the quantity of life; population growth rocketed with the arrival of farming and most of the extra food went into feeding the extra mouths.
2 As societies kept growing into villages/cities/states/empires, all the extra resources would go into building monuments and funding wars for the political and religious elite at the expense of 99% of the population.
3 Having a home and possessions has turned us into a greedy, selfish and materialistic lot.
Instead of living in a small community where everything is shared with the people around us we have been spending the last few millenia being either a cheating peasant who hates the king’s mean tax collector, or some king’s tax collector having to deal with that bastard peasant.

And in this corner, wearing the golden chaff.
The theory in the book as to how we became farmers is pretty shocking.
We were seduced and manipulated by the very crops we claim to have domesticated.
We have turned wheat, barley, rye and rice into the most successful plants on our planet at our own expense.

The story begins with a group of HGs who have come back from the G part to their temporary camp.
Among the plants they carry are stalks of wheat which they will use to make bread.
Bread has existed for at least 30,000 years and our campfire-loving ancestors cherished it.
In order to make the bread, the grains of wheat would have to be separated from the chaff; a process during which some of the grains were lost and left on the ground.

Fast forward a year or more and another group of homo-sapiens arrives.
It could be the same or a different group looking to use the favorable conditions at the camping place; they will notice the wheat growing in the small patch and will happily process it and also gather more wheat from the surroundings to make more bread.
Slowly but surely two major changes will take place.

1 The patch of wheat will grow and grow until it becomes a field that can sustain many people.
2 The humans will seek out the fatter and most nutrient-rich breeds of wheat and by natural selection over many generations the varieties of wild wheat will become the cultivated one we know today.

The HGs will not so easily abandon their 0.2 million years lifestyle but they will gradually stay in that one place just a little bit longer.
Just a day or two every few years, what’s the big deal anyway?
At the same time the number of children born increased and the time gap between them diminished as they would switch from mother’s milk to prehistoric porridge.
Having more children will also make traveling more difficult; as anyone who’s been seated next to a baby on a long flight knows.
After harvesting the crops of wheat in the summer they would stay a couple of months longer so why not build a more solid and resistant dwelling nearby?
The temporary camp became a temporary shed; then a temporary home and finally a permanent home.
And that’s how wheat domesticated us.

Well played Mr. Wheat, well played.

Within a few centuries the fertile crescent and later Asia And South America became inhabited by farmers.
The combination of the farmers’ superior numbers, greedy character and the weapons they developed by fighting each other meant that the HGs stood no chance against this new trend and in the long run almost disappeared.

Of course, Harari’s HG theory is just another theory.
Unless we get Mr. H. G. Wells to build us a time machine we can never be sure if it happened that way.

But it sure is a snazzy theory, ne c’est pa?

This entry was posted in Politics, Sociology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Happy for any comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s