Book Summaries History

Chapter 5: History’s Biggest Fraud (Sapiens)

The agricultural revolution started around 10,000 years ago. Wheat was the first crop to be cultivated, and in the last 2000 years, no new additional crops have been added. We may have the minds of ancient foragers, but we have the cuisine of ancient farmers.

The agricultural revolution only occurred in some parts of the world (Middle East, China and Central America but not in Australia, Alaska or South Africa) because of the thousands of species we hunted and gathered, only a few were fit for farming.

The previous belief held by scholars was that we became so smart that we finally got rid of our foraging ways, and finally settled down by controlling plants and animals the way we pleased. But this is untrue, we did not become smarter and we always knew the species we hunted long before the agricultural revolution.

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

No individual actor was responsible for this. Who was responsible? Wheat. More precisely, wheat, rice, and potatoes – these species manipulated humans to grow more of them, not the other way around.

In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globes surface, almost ten times the size of Britain.

And cultivating wheat was hard work, it required the clearing of rocks, and many hours of human labor, to clear out weeds and to make sure no worms or blight, locusts or rabbits, came close to it. Homo Sapiens had to sacrifice everything, their labor, sweat, and lands for wheat.

Our bodies, that evolved for climbing trees paid the price for this. We had to move heavy rocks all day, this damaged our bones and joints. And far from having better lives because of the agricultural revolution, what we got was a larger sum total of food at our disposal, but this merely resulted in “population explosions and pampered elites.”

We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.

So why did we sacrifice a better life for the cultivation of wheat?

It didn’t give us more nutrition; our old diet had a little grain in it. A diet based on cereal is hard to digest, bad for your teeth and gums, and does not contain the required vitamins and minerals.  

It didn’t make us more economically secure – a peasant’s life is less secure than that of foragers. The latter can find other species to hunt if something went wrong, but peasants – until very recently – relied on only one staple (wheat, potatoes, or rice) to survive. Millions of peasants died if these crops were infested by locusts or fungi.

And it didn’t give us more security from other people. Farmers were violent because they had to protect their lands, whereas foragers could always move if their area was threatened.

Farming harmed individuals but benefited homo sapiens as a species. It allowed our DNA to multiply exponentially. And in the same way a company’s success is measured by how much money it makes, our success as a species depends on how many copies of DNA propagate. This doesn’t mean that as individuals we should care about these kinds of calculations. No sane person would live a worse life to add more copies to the genome of his species. But no one knew what would happen as a result of the Agricultural revolution and that is why it is a trap.

Over time, the Faustian wheat deal became more burdensome. Many children died, and the adults that lived ate, but not without incessant toil.

The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realised what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements’, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.

If you are wondering why people made this miscalculation, it is for the same reason we have made miscalculations throughout history (others much worse).  People simply did not understand the consequences of their decisions.

Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, ‘Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry any more about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.’ It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.

People indeed worked harder, but they didn’t know that the number of children would increase, which would entail more sharing of wheat between children, and they did not understand that a diet that consisted of less breast milk and more porridge would be detrimental to a child’s immune system, or that permanent settlements would bring infectious diseases.

They did not know that dependence on a single food source made them more fragile in case of a drought. They did not know that even in good years, their ample supply of food would attract enemies and thieves, leading them to build walls, do guard duty, and live more anxiously. .

The dream of an easier life brought hardship, and we have not learned from this error. Today, college graduates take demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn enough money to retire by age thirty-five. Yet, when they reach that age, they have mortgages to pay for, children and cars, and then life only becomes worth it with expensive vacations and good wine. At which point, their only choice is to dig deeper and slave harder. What is the alternative?

One of the few iron laws of history is that luxuries become necessities that spawn new obligations. When we get used to a luxury, it is taken for granted, and then we count on it too much to a point where to live without it becomes impossible. Think of the countless time-saving machines we have invented, and whether they really save time at all. today, an email can be sent and replied to within minutes between (almost) any two points in the world. This beats mailbox technology when it comes to speed, but has life become more relaxing?

Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

The important lesson from the luxury trap is that our search for an easier life transformed the world in ways nobody could envision. A series of seemingly trivial decisions that were supposed to make life more secure and easier had the effect of forcing our ancestors to spend their days toiling under the scorching sun.

Read Sapiens

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.