Was agriculture the greatest blunder in human history?

Prof Darren Curnoe of Univ of New South Wales:

Twelve thousand years ago everybody lived as hunters and gatherers. But by 5,000 years ago most people lived as farmers.

This brief period marked the biggest shift ever in human history with unparalleled changes in diet, culture and technology, as well as social, economic and political organisation, and even the patterns of disease people suffered.

While there were upsides and downsides to the invention of agriculture, was it the greatest blunder in human history? Three decades ago Jarred Diamond thought so, but was he right?

Prof argues that Diamond was indeed right but we can do nothing about it:

In the past, humans could only tolerate lactose during childhood, but with the domestication of dairy cows natural selection provided northern European farmers and pastoralist populations in Africa and West Asia the lactase gene. It’s almost completely absent elsewhere in the world and it allowed adults to tolerate lactose for the first time.

Starch consumption is also feature of agricultural societies and some hunter-gatherers living in arid environments. The amylase genes, which increase people’s ability to digest starch in their diet, were also subject to strong natural selection and increased dramatically in number with the advent of farming.

Another surprising change seen in the skeletons of early farmers is a smaller skull especially the bones of the face. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had larger skulls due to their more mobile and active lifestyle including a diet which required much more chewing.

Smaller faces affected oral health because human teeth didn’t reduce proportionately to the smaller jaw, so dental crowding ensued. This led to increased dental disease along with extra cavities from a starchy diet.

Living in densely populated villages and towns created for the first time in human history private living spaces where people no longer shared their food or possessions with their community.

These changes dramatically shaped people’s attitudes to material goods and wealth. Prestige items became highly sought after as hallmarks of power. And with larger populations came growing social and economic complexity and inequality and, naturally, increasing warfare.

Inequalities of wealth and status cemented the rise of hierarchical societies — first chiefdoms then hereditary lineages which ruled over the rapidly growing human settlements.

Eventually they expanded to form large cities, and then empires, with vast areas of land taken by force with armies under the control of emperors or kings and queens.

This inherited power was the foundation of the ‘great’ civilisations that developed across the ancient world and into the modern era with its colonial legacies that are still very much with us today.

No doubt the bad well and truly outweighs all the good that came from the invention of farming all those millenia ago. Jarred Diamond was right, the invention of agriculture was without doubt the biggest blunder in human history. But we’re stuck with it, and with so many mouths to feed today we have to make it work better than ever. For the future of humankind and the planet.

hmm..

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