What type of grass are you on, Jared?

by Edward Pegler on 5 July, 2017

Does agriculture start with lucky grass, as Jared Diamond says, or does lucky grass start with agriculture.

I’ve been sitting enjoying the weather in my garden in Swindon, England. It’s a mess, full of random weeds and overgrown grass. But who cares? The Sun’s out.

And there is a particularly fine, architectural grass growing just next to me here which I couldn’t help pulling a few spikelets off, rubbing them in my hands and seeing, after some careful winnowing, what was left. There, in my palm, were a few tiny brown seeds, about a millimetre long.

From what I can tell, the grass I’ve been handling is Phleum pratense, or ‘purple-stem cat’s tail’. It grows widely in light soils across the Eurasian steppe from here in Britain to there in China, but is of no great interest to anyone and I don’t think it’s ever been cultivated.

But those tiny seeds in my hand made me think of how far the grass-based grain crops of the world, maize, wheat, millet, etc. have come in ten thousand years and the shear hassle they must have been to collect enough sustenance off in their primitive forms.

Undoubtedly, primitive barley was an easier source of protein that primitive maize (teosinte). But was that just the luck of the draw in places where people chose to start agriculture anyway.

Jared Diamond’s argument in ‘Guns, Germs & Steel‘ was simple. That luck was crucial. Farming started where the grass was best, in the Middle East. But tell that to the Mesoamericans who persevered with the unbelievably unpromising teosinte.

So, let’s take a momentary fight of fancy and say that in some parallel universe farming started right here, in what was destined to become Swindon. What grass from the unpromising range of grasses on offer here would those ancient Swindonians have picked. Perhaps purple stem cat’s tail, with its tiny, but protein-rich seeds, would have been one of them. Perhaps millennia later we’d be amazed at the widespread use of Cat’s Tail as one of the major carbohydrate sources of the world’s burgeoning population.

And an alternative Jared would be extolling the good-fortune of the those who lived thousands of years ago in Swindon (not something often said about the place now), as they harvested local wild grasses.

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Small population size and little need for competition is an excellent explanation for the lack of conflict during the transition to agriculture. However, there’s also another possible explanation – co-operation.

Jericho, 9000 BC

Jericho, 9000 BC

In my previous post I tried to gather together the evidence for violence in the transition from foraging to farming across the Near East. Much of it is known by academics but it’s rarely put together.

What the evidence appears to show is that there is a fall in violence during the transition to agriculture in the Near East and that this lasts for perhaps 2,000 years. The fall seems to start early, even with the first experiments in agriculture. However, violent conflict increases with the increase in inequality and more complex agricultural methods.

Such a pattern is recognisable in other instances of agriculture, for example in Eastern North America, with conflict reducing gradually around 1,000 BC and rising again around 2,000 years later around 1,000 AD.

The simple explanation

There is a perfectly simple explanation for the fall in violence as agriculture started. As Jonathan Haas argues for Eastern North America, the initial state of violence before agriculture was due to the land reaching its holding capacity. There was no spare land to feed more foragers. As with Robert Carneiro’s model, people turned inward to battle each other.

But when agriculture, or at least some sort of horticulture, started to be practised then the strain caused by food shortage started to ease. Individual groups no longer needed to be at each other’s throats. As this period of plenty started the fear of war lifted as everyone could feed themselves.

However, once agriculture became established then agricultural populations gradually rose. Eventually, there was a return to the old situation where the holding capacity of the land was reached, but now, because of agriculture, this was at a much higher population density. Tribes fought for space and food in the new, fully farmed landscape. Thus, conflict returned.

There is nothing wrong with this model. It’s explanatory power is excellent. Furthermore, Ian Kuijt has made a good case for rising populations all through this period in the Levant, something which only slowed or reversed at the time of increasing signs of violence, in the PPNC.

So why am I writing this post?

The problems

There are two things which are nagging at me:

  • Why is it that in some places in the world the transition to agriculture led to a fall in violence, as seen above, but in other places (in fact more often than not) it led to a rise? If the story above were true, shouldn’t a pattern of falling conflict be seen everywhere?
  • Why is it that during such a period of low food stress we see a rise in the uniformity of religion and evidence for increased trade between groups. Why would they need to bother?

For the second point this circumstance is particularly noticeable in the Near East. Trade in projectile points, obsidian and other minerals and stones (e.g. greenstone) as well as copper noticeably increases during the transition to agriculture, so much so that the Near Eastern Levant region was dubbed the ‘PPNB Interaction Sphere’ by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen.

Additionally, a uniformity of culture and, in all likelihood, religion settled across the region, especially from Middle PPNB times, at the time when agriculture became reality.

This is quite extraordinary when it’s realised that many of the agricultural settlements were located around very localised, well-watered alluvial fans but were separated by large stretches of agriculture-free land. Why should these isolated farmers need to have much to do with each other?

Co-operation – the more complex explanation

Foraging was a relatively small-scale system, with groups of less than 100 operating in a way that they believed to be independent of other groups. Interactions with other groups were often for acquiring sexual partners. Groups were relatively mobile and tended to move to where the supply of food was most promising. Groups had little reason to be friendly with other groups. This pattern of behaviour changed when people started to settle in one place, therefore needed to rely more on the foods available locally.

Unreliable agriculture

Early agriculture was highly unreliable. If each group of people were simply to work with the cereals and, perhaps, animals that they started to cultivate or raise then the chances of catastrophic failure would be high for most settlements.

Most early farmers still relied to a large extent on hunting and the collection of grains. However, these were also of limited supply and, with the rising populations seen in early agriculture, local sources could have been exhausted quite quickly during a run of bad harvests for a settlement.

Pooling resources

However, an alternative to self-reliance would be co-operation with other groups. Like being a member of the Masons, a church or any other similar collective establishment, buying into a larger scale grouping than the local tribe allowed people a chance not to fail in their ‘start-up business’.

Religion provided a commonality between groups across the Near East. While they may have spoken different languages, they shared ‘PPN’ism, the religious rituals which led to particular burial rites, etc. These were important in letting people from different settlements know how to behave and interact with each other when they met.

Perhaps more importantly, in any settlements’ time of need due to crop failure, loans from other settlements could be made in grain or other surplus. These loans might be said to be gifts but were in effect to be paid back in due course, even if at low or zero rates of interest. Payment could be again made in grain or other surplus in better future years.

All of this may have been ‘accounted’ by the exchange of less useful gifts, whether stone or metal beads or some other items, these gifts being in recognition of the debt owed. In effect these would act as a form of money. Each settlement would have such items in their repertoire as insurance, a kind of ‘bank of last resort’ during a crisis.

Through such a process of mutual support, agricultural failure in any one settlement would not lead to catastrophe for its inhabitants. Better, higher yield grains and more productive animals could be brought in and, if successfully grown even passed on from community to community. Given enough time (say 2,000 years), individual settlements could become increasingly self-reliant.

The rise of independence

And this, of course, would be where the trouble started. As settlements became more independent, the need to be part of the larger system would fade. Groups would have less reason to deal with each other and more reason to return to the normal state of humanity – suspicion and hostility toward strangers.

Interestingly, the other consequence of this, apart from isolationism, would be the loss of importance of the gift items which were exchanged between groups. And, sure enough, one of the features of the Late PPNB is the burial of individuals with copper beads, stone pendants and other ‘luxuries’, something which had never occurred previously. These items were no longer essential to the greater community – they had become items of individual status and wealth.

Discussion

What I’m arguing for here only makes sense if agriculture developed locally. If agriculture was imported, fully formed, from another area then there would be no reason to see this need for co-operation between groups, at least not for long. This may explain why the Eastern North American experiment with farming also showed the same pattern of falling violence, whereas many other locations did not.

What I’m further arguing is that warfare may be a result of there being only low levels of risk for the initiator. If you knew the risk was great that you’d lose you probably wouldn’t start a war. Early, experimental farming communities had everything to lose by picking a fight with their neighbours. Co-operation was the only sensible strategy. Those groups of farmers that didn’t co-operate with others, or even chose to be hostile to them, would probably die out quickly without the support of their neighbours.

Conversely, the increasing independance of communities as time went on, whether because of better grains or animals or manuring or improved cookery techniques (e.g. using pots to cook), meant that these groups were much less at risk if they didn’t co-operate. They had much less to lose by choosing to be aggressive and, perhaps, quite a lot to gain.

I’m not saying that communities were ever completely independent; such a state is extremely unlikely. Communities often need something, for example salt, from outside. It’s just that such trade could be done by middlemen, and groups need never worry about their acts of aggression preventing that trade.

Endnote

Taking a view of co-operation like the one I’ve suggested above sounds a bit like those who said Europe was too interlinked for war in 1914. It’s true that this didn’t stop war breaking out. However, it’s also true that, from an economic point of view, WWI benefitted almost no-one in Europe. After half a century and the loss of millions of lives the concensus in Europe was for a return to co-operation. Half a century later and the mood appears to be turning daft again.

So maybe early farmers were just as daft, not taking potential risks into account either. They may simply have ‘learned’ not to fight through a process of artificial selection – choose to be the aggressor and you will die out, due to your supplies being cut off. We haven’t had that level of selection recently – if we choose to be the aggressor now we might lose the war but the effects are generally not terminal. Our method of learning has been through education, but education is not as harsh a tutor as being wiped out. This is perhaps why we keep making the same mistakes.

At other times in history the relative independance of groups or states has meant that the advantage was with the most aggressive aggressor (and, to a lesser extent, with the most docile and biddable). A way to keep yourself supplied was everything when launching a successful war. Either way, there is no simple rule for whether to be a ‘hawk’ or a ‘dove’ in your action – it all depends.

References

Bar-Yosef, O. & Belfer-Cohen, A. 1989 The Levantine ‘‘PPNB’’ interaction sphere. In: I. Hershkovitz (Ed.), ‘People and culture in change: Proceedings of the second symposium on Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic populations of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin’. BAR International Series 508(i) (pp. 59–72). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Eshed, V. et al. 2010 Paleopathology and the Origin of Agriculture in the Levant, Wiley Interscience.

Comments on fall and rise in violence at the transition to agriculture, p122?

Haas, J. 1999 The Origins of War And Ethnic Violence, In: ‘Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives’ (Carman, J. & A. Harding, eds.), Sutton, 11-24.

Kuijt, I. 2008 Demography and Storage Systems During the Southern Levantine Neolithic Demographic Transition, In: The Neolithic Demographic Transition and its Consequences (Bocquet-Appel, J.P. & O. Bar-Yosef, eds.), 287-313.

 

 

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