Neanderthals, bandits and farmers – Tudge

Or to give it it’s full name, “Neanderthals, bandits and farmers: How agriculture really began”, is an extremely short 53 page book from the Darwinism Today series, of which I think there are about five in total.


Really it’s a kind of academic paper, but not as dry and without any tedious referencing I picked this up second hand for £2.50, which, now I browse around to see where you, the reader, may be able to pick up a copy, seems like a very good deal. The quote on the cover is a good hook and summary of Tudges argument:

“People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy. They drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way”

The title appealed to me, and reminded me of a few discussions I had with various people along the lines of ‘Was early civilization really as horrible as we are lead to believe?’. After all, history is written by the winners: of course the Celts were ‘less’ civilised than the Romans, of course the Anglo Saxons were ‘less’ civilised that the Normans: largely because the Romans and Normans are the ones more likely to be telling us that this was the case. And of course, by that argument, we here in Modern Britain are the most civilised of all.

Well, I wouldn’t want to go back, but it’s not been a smooth ascent by any means.

Agriculture then, is the point at which we generally think mankind stopping chasing deer and eating berries, and settled in one place to farm. As a result of this, man created everything else: cities, technology, literature… all as a result of being able to grow more food and thus have the time and wealth necessary to develop. Yes, those hunter-gatherers were bloody slackers, is what. Couldn’t even be arsed to build roads, houses..


Agriculture is when mankind put on a suit, got rid of the piercings, and got some graft done. What a sell out.

It didn’t just happen over night. Tudge explains the three methods of agriculture, or to be more literal about it ‘manipulating the environment for your benefit’. They aren’t necessarily exclusive:

Horticulture: At it’s simplest, simply shoving a stick into the ground. You don’t break up the existing environment, but sort of organize it. Take a cutting of an olive tree, plug it in the ground, and eventually you have a grove, or an orchard. (From the latin hortus: garden and cultura: cultivation)

Arable farming: This is where you break up the soil to start from scratch. You don’t get massive fields of crops until man has tamed an ox or similar to do most of the plowing for him. (From the latin arare: to plow)

Pastoral farming: Based around controlling the grazing of animals, herding them from spot to spot, eating whatever happens to be there. (From the latin pastus: to feed)

The ideal, pinnacle of mixed farming, in our minds is stuck somewhere in the early 20th century, although it had effectively existed since the 18th century. You have a few fields of arable crops, let the livestock graze around fallow fields, swapping the two over every year or two, supplemented with catch crops, excess milk whey fed to pigs… all very balanced and productive.

Anyway, the problem between arable farmers and pastoralists is in their tendency to move around (or not). Why would an arable farmer go to all the trouble of plowing up a good field or two, fencing it off, protecting it through the season, even moving the odd river to get water, then move on somewhere else? Too much time has been sunk into preparing the land. There is clearly a clash of interest, where the pastoralist needs lots of space to roam around, and they don’t want the arable farmers fencing it all off.

Now we start talking biblical. In the story of Cain and Abel, one is a ‘keeper of sheep’ and another is a ’tiller of the ground’. One is probably more of a carnivore, one is probably more of a vegetarian. One presented God with a gift of lambs, one with corn. Now, we know one kills the other, but which? The pastoralist or the arable farmer?

God: I specifically said ‘No wheat’! Damn it, next time I’m making a wish list on Amazon.

Cain, the land grabbing vegetarian, is the killer.

That was news to me, of course we know all modern day veggies are living saints. Tudge observes that a huge amount of the Old Testament is about (or at least framed by) very early methods of farming: and nobody brings little baby J any sheaves of wheat for his birthday, that’s for sure. Or at least if they do, they keep pretty shtum about it.

We could assume in these biblical times that arable and pastoral rubbed along with each other, but not without some degree of resentment. Arable farming is pretty destructive to the ‘God given’ landscape and can, in reality, destroy the usefulness of land pretty quickly too. Of course, pastoralism can in theory do the same but is not immediately as invasive.

We break down the essential components of farming to go even further back. Firstly, the simple act of protecting a favored plant: by weeding out the competition, or shooing away other animals. On an evolutionary scale, this creates a new cycle of cooperation between plant and animal, changing them both. The plants don’t need to be as toxic, or as spiky with a defender around. Being tasty is a real boon for getting your seeds spread around the place. (At the same time, this is why certain extremely hot chillis exist, so hot that nothing would really want to eat them in the wild but we have gradually bred them to be ludicrously spicy)

Humans maybe aren’t the only ones doing this deliberately, some monkeys have been known to clear out dead branches. The cycle breaks down when one partner is lost: apparently some plants in Borneo have died off at the same time Orangutans are ‘removed from the cycle’ (for one reason or another) because there is no one left to spread their seeds. Makes sense, I look out for you, you look out for me.

Managing game is the animal-animal side of farming. Even some ants do it: herding aphids to honeydew spots in order that the aphids will eat and excrete the sugar. The Native Americans and Aboriginies both had some interesting methods of proto-herding. Some evidence suggests that Native Americans chased herds of Bison off cliffs. (Fun for all the family) Aborigines, with the use of fire, have set fire to large grassy plains. How is that farming? Kill off the dead grass, create new growth, attracts the small rapidly breeding mammals, which attract larger mammals: then you eat them! Stone age genius, kangaroo burgers tonight. (There is a lot of fascinating stuff out there about persistence hunting and how humans have evolved long distance running stamina, compared to other animals)

The mix and match nature of farming (over the course of 100,000 years or so) meant that few people suddenly threw it all in and said ‘Right, I’m gonna be an arable farmer the rest of my days.’ The Hottentot people of Africa apparantly alternated at points between keeping goats and hunting between various years, depending on their needs.

Indeed, the real value of a variety of food sources can be explained with the example of the domestic cat.

In the wild, the population of predator and prey keep each other in check. Too many cats eating all the mice? Cats die off. More mice available? Cats breed more. Your contemporary Mr Whiskers no longer has this problem, in that he’ll still eat birds and mice when available, but can always count on coming back to his “master” (lol) for a tin of food anyway. To reiterate: being on the verge of extinction can actually be a really good hiding tactic, your predators will hopefully be able to pick on someone else for a bit instead.

So what happened to all the mammoths, ground sloths and the giant moa? (like an emu but over 3m tall) A quatenary extinction event, or to use the more catchy name THE PLEISTOCENE OVERKILL . Sounds like an Xbox achievement. Let it never be said that primitive man didn’t know how to do his fair share of extinctifying. (Although I should point out it might not have been hunting, it could have been something else, climate change etc)

North America, South America and Australia all lost 75% or more of their large mammal species during this time, whereas African and Eurasia were less affected. If we remember that humans most likely originated in Africa, moving around to Eurasia, then the mammals here had a significantly longer time to ‘get used to those two legged gits’ than the mammals in the Americas and Australia, who would have been isolated from us for a long time. Then all of a sudden, surprise! This is the same explanation we know to be true for animals like the dodo and that giant turtle that was so delicious:

“after once tasting the Gallipagos tortoises, every other animal food fell off greatly in our estimation … The meat of this animal is the easiest of digestion, and a quantity of it, exceeding that of any other food, can be eaten without experiencing the slightest of inconvenience.”

Anyway, this farmer-or-hunter conflict gives an interesting perspective on the Cro-Magnon-or-Neanderthal conflict, given that these two species of proto-human existed for some time alongside each other. The practical, tool-using, communicating and trading farmers won: not neccesarily by hunting the Neanderthals, but beating them at the game of ‘get more food live longer and breed lots’

The Neolithic then, about 10,000 years ago, we start to see more evidence of settlements: things like the bones of domesticated animals- smaller and perhaps easier to manage than their wild brethren, or perhaps underfed and stunted. Tudge makes the point that fossilization is so rare, that most things that are “fortunate” enough to get fossilized must have been pretty common at the time, so it suggests that farming like this had been taking place for a long time already. Sounds a bit humdrum, but what Tudge argues is that it is important we realise agriculture was not ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’ by some stone-age Einstein, it had already been part of human experience for a long time: what really happened was this fairly common idea was taken and ramped up massively, to support cities, civilisation and all the rest.

Now we have kick started the engine of growth: the more food you can make, the more people you can have, and the more people you have, the more food you have to make… and so on. The equation of effort into food is much simpler for the farmer than it is for the hunter. Hunters are spectacularly lazy by comparison: Lions sleep or just hang out about 20 hours a day (hint: that is nearly all the hours) and the Kalahari bushmen have been shown to hunt for around 6 hours a day. Hunters are restricted from doing too much work. They may increase their food supply in the short term, but when all the gazelles run out, they’re stuffed. The farmer can grow as much as he physically can, if you plow ten times the fields, you generally get ten times the food. But then you have ten time more people and need ten times more food! This is a pretty punishing cycle, and one we’ve never really managed to break. (For example see The Green Revolution in the 1940’s) More food = more people = need more food = have more people = need more food…. etc

Wrapping up, and going back to the biblical stuff

One of my favourite ideas coming out of this book: “The Garden of Eden was based on passed down memories of a real place.”

The Garden of Eden was of course, supposedly pretty awesome. Everything was plentiful and bountiful and somethingelse-ful, all the animals and plants of the world were there, there were only two humans there who eventually got kicked out into the barren wasteland for having too much knowledge. Could it actually have been a real place on Earth somewhere?

During the last ice age, the land in the Middle-East was prime real-estate. Many other places were simply buried under the ice, what is now the Persian Gulf may have been dry land, with the Tigris and Euphrates running into the Arabian Sea. The climate, by comparison to many other places, was by all accounts “lovely”, there were fish, water birds, fruiting trees and fallow deer. (Apparantly the same can be said of parts of Northern Australia where early Aboriginies lived, and indeed still live)

The ige age ended, causing the seas to rise, perhaps as quickly as a few decades, forcing these early Adams and Eves to move to the uplands: abandoning their easily-managed pastoral wunderland for a more cramped, less productive landscape where they had to start arable farming.

Could it be the case that these ancient memories and stories of a once plentiful and diverse patch of land were passed down over 10,000 years to form the basis of this creation myth? A chap called Juris Zanis has done more work on this idea, and indeed finds some specific directions in the very text of the Bible, based on four rivers that would have converged in this spot several millenia ago. Why wouldn’t a story this important get passed down over a period of 10,000 years? There are cases (according to Tudge) of modern divers finding geographical features underneath the seas, as described by Aboriginies, whose descendants may have roamed them 8,000 years ago.

So, was man cursed to farm? What did God have to say about it?

“In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”

And what does Tudge say about it in the conclusions?

“…We must wonder how much longer this exponential rise can continue…Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are. Perhaps we should learn from them.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.