How Agriculture Nearly Destroyed Human Civilization

“The first farmer was the first man, and all historic nobility rests on possession and use of land.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, Farming

In A Nutshell

It’s long been thought that when mankind switched from a nomadic lifestyle to the stability of agriculture, we also experienced something of a blossoming society. Contrary to that belief, though, researchers have found that after an initial upswing in population numbers and community size, the farming lifestyle then brought with it a massive death toll, similar to the numbers of dead seen in some of Europe’s great plagues. Now, it’s thought that man’s inability to farm sustainably originally led to this collapse.

The Whole Bushel

There are few things that have changed society on the whole as much as the switch from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the establishment of farming communities. It’s agriculture that’s been credited with allowing mankind to sustain the populations of villages and cities and turn its attention to developing other things like the arts and literature. But it’s only recently that we’ve found that agriculture also led to something else—a massive and grim population collapse on par with the great plagues of Europe.

Scientists have been able to track the spread of the idea of farming and a more stationary lifestyle. It began reaching into the Mediterranean from Asia about 8,500 years ago; 500 years after that, word had reach the middle of Europe. And lastly, it finally reached Britain and Ireland about 6,000 years ago, along with the more northern reaches of the continent.

Originally, population skyrocketed. Food was undoubtedly more bountiful, easier to harvest, and fertility rates increased. For a long time, science was content to just leave it at that. No one really looked at what happened after this initial boom, and it turns out that it was pretty grim.

Radiocarbon dating has helped researchers unlock new information about this previously pretty unexplored patch of time. About 4,000 B.C., there was a massive collapse in the population of Europe. It largely happened all across the continent, and many of the more than 13,000 sites that were examined told the same story.

Population declined by between 30 and 60 percent in many areas, a drop that’s on par with what would happen across Europe during the time of the Black Death. Human remains increase during this time, there is a significant drop in the evidence of human activity, and, weirdly, there’s no definite cause for it.

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There isn’t any scientific evidence to show that there was any type of massive climate change at play in this massive drop-off, but there is something even stranger—it happened more than once, with varying degrees of severity.

What scientists think happened is something that we should be taking another look at today.

It’s thought that this new technology of farming just couldn’t sustain the population growth. Farmers didn’t yet know anything about soil degradation and leaving fields fallow to recover their nutrients; instead, crops were continuously grown and continuously got weaker, smaller, and more susceptible to disease. There was less food to feed greater numbers, and the great technology that had revolutionized society had also led to its downfall.

There’s another problem with the advent of farming as a major food source, too. In order to farm, that meant people were clearing land that had previously been wooded—and that meant a drop in the amount of hunting and game animals that were available for food. When a crop failed, scientists believe, the early farmers had already driven off their other, readily available food sources that had sustained their communities for generations previously.

The theory holds up for another massive population boom and collapse as well, one that’s tied to another pretty revolutionary idea. It happened about the time people were turning to yet another major source of food—dairy. We’ve only had the ability to digest milk for about 7,500 years, and it’s only about 6,500 years ago that dairy became well established in Europe (although it had been practiced, it was well in the minority when it came to creating foodstuffs).

It all goes to show that even our Neolithic ancestors suffered from the adverse effects of technology that they didn’t completely understand.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Hard Times Followed Booms for Europe’s Ancient Farmers
Nature: Archaeology: The milk revolution
Nature: Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe

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