A book rarely packs as much information into less than 50 pages than Colin Tudge’s Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began.
Tudge debunks the narrative that farming is only about 10,000 years old, and that is was eagerly embraced once humans realized its advantages over more primitive hunter-gatherer methods.
Instead, he suggests ‘proto-farming’ began at least 40,000 years ago if farming is understood as altering the environment to make it produce more food, and provides ample archaeological evidence.
The most intriguing evidence for his contrarian thesis, however, comes from the Bible, and its apparent critique of an intensive agricultural way of life compared to shepherding (i.e., pastoral farming), which leaves the landscape more or less intact.
“Arable farming in Egypt as depicted in Exodus is literal slavery. When Jesus is born, he is attended by shepherds; nobody brings any sheaves of wheat.”
Even more damning evidence against farming is found in the story of Cain, the archetypal farmer, murdering his brother Abel, the archetypal shepherd. Tudge believes these stories began as folk memories, reflecting the dramatic changes ushered in by the advent of various kinds of farming. Today, the rivalry between the cowboy and farmer is still a popular trope in film and literature, so we might wonder where it came from.
The Story of Early Farming
The standard story of farming was one of unambiguous progress — a stage in human evolution that enabled all subsequent technological advances. In fact, “advanced” farming may have been more of a retreat to the only stable form of sustenance after the earliest proto-farmers became victims of our own success.
The book begins with a history of horticulture (i.e., gardening), which Genesis confirms as the human vocation par excellence. Humans are not the only animals to alter their environments (beavers, for example, engage in niche construction to optimize their habitat), but we found ourselves developing more advanced forms of crop protection—weeding, cultivating, and even transplanting crops into more fertile soil. Tudge believes a gradual process of innovation enabled humans to stay in one place for longer, rather than moving on to forage a new location or hunt a new population.
In the hunter-gatherer’s world, hunting results in diminishing returns as the prey population dwindles, necessitating nomadism. A full-time hunter can’t hunt a species to extinction, but once part-time farming creates a supplemental food source, the hunter can now stay in one place long enough to drive a species into oblivion.
This appears to be what happened everywhere proto-farming humans went. The archaeological record pins major extinction events to the centuries just after human arrival in the Americas and Australia:
“In the centuries immediately after the first human beings arrived in North America… 33 out of 45 genera of large mammals disappeared [including] camels, giant beavers, peccaries (American pigs), several types of elephant including mammoths and mastodonts, giant ground slots and the glyptodont – which was an armadillo the size of a bread van – plus the animals that preyed on them – sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and giant running bears.”
With these juicy game hunting opportunities gone, proto-farming people had to get even more clever about how they made up for the caloric deficit. Tudge charts the rise of game management and, eventually, domestication of smaller, more docile animals. This process likely occurred in the same piecemeal fashion as arable farming, not all at once.
Some groups chose the nomadic path of shepherding, while others intensified their horticulture into arable farming, i.e., finding suitable soil, tilling it, and planting select crops. Since farming enables larger populations, the “arabilists” had to innovate or die. Larger populations need to be sustained by an even larger food supply. Most of the story of agriculture from that point on is one of ever-intensifying farming methods to feed ever-growing populations, until disease or resource constraints led to large-scale famines and die-offs.
“Pastoralists,” on the other hand, were never locked into the same boom-and-bust cycles of agriculture, since they continued the nomadic practices of their ancestors, albeit with their “game” under tender care (i.e., domestication).
What about the Neanderthals?
We know that Neanderthals and our Homo sapiens predecessors, Cro-Magnon, coexisted for thousands of years in Europe. Then Neanderthals disappeared. The last of them may have survived until just 27,000 years ago — even cross-breeding with the proto-humans.
Cro-Magnon may have had more practical and cooperative hunting strategies, but more importantly, they were likely part-time farmers, and Neanderthals were pure hunter-gatherers. Cro-Magnons, with their diverse food supplies, would have out-populated Neanderthals while simultaneously eroding their prey base. Neanderthal went extinct for the same reason as all of the other apex predators whose prey went extinct in the Americas.
The bandits referenced in Tudge’s title are the Neanderthals — they “lived on their wits and took … only what the environment had to offer.” He alludes to the work of Stan Gooch, whose New-Agey writings on Neanderthals (including The Dream Culture of the Neanderthals: Guardians of the Ancient Wisdom) earned him the reproach of his academic colleagues.
Gooch believed that Neanderthals were our romantic moon-worshiping relatives. They resisted the hard-working toil associated with farming, and were either outcompeted or assimilated into the gene pool of Cro-Magnon, to create the new species of Homo sapiens sapiens. Gooch has since been vindicated on many of his arguments. A new book by a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School basically affirms the role of Neanderthal in our evolution.
The Neolithic Revolution
Now we arrive at the period usually thought to be the dawn of agriculture.
The first archaeological evidence for cultivations stems from ~10,000 years ago, when caches of grain discovered in the Middle East become distinct from the wild ancient grains that the proto-farmers cultivated. Furthermore, evidence of animal husbandry is found in butchered bones that are smaller than those of wild animals.
This coincided with the first permanent, stone-built cities. This is almost certainly not the dawn of agriculture, but rather the dawn of large-scale agricultural civilization, since archaeological evidence usually post-dates the actual origin of the thing in question. If remnants can survive for 10s of thousands of years, that means they were fairly widespread during the time to which the remnants can be dated.
Here, Tudge makes an argument that these settlements were emphatically not humans’ “preferred” way of living by any stretch. He elaborates on the vicious cycle of increased yields from farming. Whereas predatory humans engaged in bursts of intense, risky hunting followed by longer periods of leisure, the farmer’s lot was constant drudgery:
“The farmer who works ten times as hard as his neighbour will indeed produce ten times as much food — and in favourable circumstances can sustain this tenfold increase indefinitely. Ten times more food means an ever greater opportunity for population growth. … The more people farm, the more the population rises and so the more they need to farm.”
It was a one-way ratchet, and once it became large-scale, we couldn’t go back to our hunter-gatherer ways. What began as a hobby had become a full-time job.
For centuries and millennia, industrial agriculture has continued to innovate, but these innovations have been swallowed up by population growth. Now, the population is steadying, but we have spent much of earth’s natural patrimony: topsoil. Bringing more industrial resources to bear on the agricultural enterprise seems like the wrong approach to Tudge.
What precipitated the acceleration of agricultural civilization was a warming event that flooded the fertile oasis that is now the Persian Gulf. Proto-farmers likely cultivated this land until the flooding forced them to move outward. The end of the last Ice Age made people crowd into a smaller space with fewer wild resources, so they had to farm to support their larger population.
In the new climate, grains like barley and wheat flourished. At some point, artificial selection resulted in a change in the dominant grain cultivars such that the ripe grains held firmly to the grass stem during harvest. Such an adaptation would be unlikely in the wild, where grasses need to be blown by the wind to seed themselves anew, but that problem goes away when people with sickles become your reproductive aid. This genetic shift has led Tudge to ask who is domesticating who? Are we domesticating the plants or are the grains perhaps domesticating us?
These events also have a Biblical basis with the Great Flood reported in Genesis, which gives a description of Eden’s location at the head of a river that parts four-ways. The Tigris and Euphrates, plus the now-dammed Karun and now-dried Wadi Batin all flow into the Persian Gulf. Genesis, written around 1,500 BC, could be a folk memory of events that would have happened about 4,500 years before that. Indeed, similar memories of a cataclysmic flood were passed down through mythology and oral tradition in places as remote from Eden as Australia.
This folk memory also records the trauma of the shift to agricultural civilization:
“In the sweat of they face, shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Genesis 3:19 (KJV)
The average stature of farming humans decreased, and childbirth became more painful for women with smaller hips:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Genesis 3:16 (KJV)
These all contribute to “the sheer awfulness of farming,” to use Tudge’s words — something we never would have adopted voluntarily.
Later Agricultural Revolutions
The agricultural revolution usually refers to the British Agricultural Revolution of the 17th to 19th centuries, but Tudge alludes to an earlier revolution during the Middle Ages, in which pastoralism and arablism were brought into harmony. A Brit, Tudge refers romantically to the traditional pastoral farming practices in England, where sheep and cattle graze whatever is growing locally, and people take the natural vegetation as it is.
In this video, he contrasts one farming method which employs skilled labor as the primary input to manage a complex regenerative process, with an industrial system which simplifies everything, using fossil-fuel-powered vehicles to subdue the natural landscape and extract a maximum short-term yield.
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers is too short to go into depth on the “mixed farms” of the England of Tudge’s youth, in which cereals were grown for a few years on a plot of land before livestock were brought in to restore the fertility.
“Sheep were fed on catch crops of autumn turnips, and chickens on tailcorn, while pigs fed on surplus whey as milk was turned into butter. It was all very cosy and logical — and in principle unimprovable.”
He is not opposed to technologies like the tractor, and doesn’t say we have to go back to a nomadic lifestyle.
Enlightened farming requires that we understand our past, and use our knowledge to integrate the best practices from arable and pastoral farming.
Indeed, the cowboy and the farmer should be friends.