Was the invention of agriculture a great leap forward?

The ‘Neolithic Revolution’ in the ninth millennium in Mesopotamia and Syria saw a fundamental shift in mode of production from hunter-gatherer to semi-settled agriculture. The mutual domestication of human beings, plants, and animals (goats first, then sheep, and later cattle and pigs) produced very different approaches to and perceptions of these relations, as with the foodstuffs eaten and nature of life. But was it a great leap forward, from nature to culture?

Not in all respects, for any new mode of production brings with it blessings and curses. The transition from the ease of hunter-gatherer existence to the hard work of agriculture introduced new diseases that relied on the human beings and animals for the life cycle of organisms, such as worms and tuberculosis. Droughts and famines had more catastrophic consequences, while the increasingly temperate climate encouraged from the wetlands malaria, hookworm, tetanus, and schistosomiasis. More permanent settlements with their refuse encouraged flies, fleas, mosquitoes, rats, wild dogs, and wild cats, all potential disease carriers. Also found in skeletal remains are signs of malnutrition from a more limited diet, deformities in the vertebrae, lower back, knees, toes, and wrists, developed from carrying heavy loads, incessant seeding, nurturing, harvesting, and threshing of grains, as well as loss of teeth, ground down from the course diet (which was relieved only with the introduction of cooking in pottery vessels late in the Neolithic period). Life expectancy was between twenty-five to thirty, with only 50-60% of children attaining maturity.


4 thoughts on “Was the invention of agriculture a great leap forward?

  1. The twentieth century demonstrated to us that every mode of production, even the ones hailed as great leaps forward, bring their own negatives. Human progression is an idea, with a complex relationship to reality, and one which deeply polluted all of those grand ideologies which thrived in the eighteenth-nineteenth century (imperialism, historical-critical biblical studies, capitalism, Marxism, etc).

    But tell me – am I wrong, or behind all of this musing about economic developments are you consistently giving primacy to the forces of production over the relations of production or what? You are, aren’t you, you devil, you.

    1. Somehow I suspect the idea of progress, of man leaping forth from the primeval swamp, is a little older than the 20th century. Forces of production? Are you accusing me of being a vulgar Marxist?

      1. No doubt the idea of progress is older than its 18th-19C inflections, too.

        The question of vulgar Marxism is a bit different than the question I was asking. Both the forces and relations of production are in the economic base, so the priority of one or the other is separate from the whole vulgar marxist question. I was suspecting you were giving priority to agricultural materials and labour power in your analysis, over the many different ways in which people participate in economic relations. Sure, agriculture is of constant importance throughout the ancient world, but the way surplus can be extracted for the small elite can differ greatly, don’t you think? How does this change in different places and periods? How does a change in the relations of production, ceteris paribus, change the nature of religious ideology? These are broad questions, but maybe you have some specific examples.

      2. Let’s not deaden the metaphor of Überbau und Basis, which can give the impression of a static building, when they are also used of railway rolling stock, always on the move. On this matter, relations of productions are not purely of the Basis.

        The problem with much work on the ANE is that the predilections of researchers are determined by the emphases of capitalism. So they search for evidence of the ‘natural’ human tendency to ‘truck, barter and trade’, focusing on miniscule evidence of trade (without quantitative analysis and so on) or on patterns of tribute. If you wish to focus on surplus, which is only one part of the story, the main area for that is in agricultural production (95% or more of the small population), and that surplus was produced for survival during tough times – a bad harvest, a famine, disease, etc.

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