Driven from Eden?

Was the Neolithic revolution entirely a good thing?

Some 10,000 years ago – quite recently in the four million years of human evolution – communities began to rely less on hunting, fishing, and foraging for food and settled down to plant crops and rear livestock. This change, known as the Neolithic (New Stone Age) Revolution, opened the way to landed property, city life, patriarchy, slavery, imperial conquest, and all the other delights of “civilization” – that is, class society. It has generally been seen as a great step forward for humanity. This was the view was taken Marx, who believed that the development of class society would eventually lead to a return to communal life at a higher technological level.

And yet we inherit a myth that mourns the pre-Neolithic life as a paradise lost. The Bible tells us that God drove Adam from the Garden of Eden to till the accursed ground (“it shall bring forth thorns and thistles for you”) and eat bread in the sweat of his face. As for Eve, she was to bear children in sorrow and be ruled over by her husband (Genesis 3: 17–19, 23). If only they had played their cards right!

So what was life really like for our prehistoric ancestors? There are two kinds of evidence. We can learn quite a lot about the material aspects of their existence –what they ate, what tools they used, how often they moved camp, how healthy they were – from the archeological record, although its interpretation is sometimes open to dispute. We can also use information collected in modern times about people still living by hunting and gathering, such as Australian aborigines and South African bushmen, making due allowance for change in environmental conditions. Thus, many contemporary Stone Age groups have been pushed out into “marginal” semi-desert environments. In prehistoric times people lived under a wide range of natural conditions, often much more favorable to human life than the Kalahari or the Australian outback.

Even in these marginal environments, however, surviving hunters and gatherers live quite an easy life, working on average just two to four hours a day. Many daylight hours are spent socializing, dancing or napping. (See Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Tavistock Publications, 1974.) Their diet is adequate in quantity, varied, and nutritious. For instance, the Kalahari bushmen eat over a hundred varieties of plant, including fruits, berries, nuts, gums, roots and bulbs, leafy greens, beans, and melons. Archeological evidence suggests that our Stone Age ancestors were also generally well fed and healthy. Late Paleolithic skeletons from Greece and Turkey show an average height of 5′ 9″ for men and 5′ 5″ for women, as compared to 5′ 3″ and 5′ 0″ for skeletons from a later agricultural period (3,000 BC).

At least until very recently, agriculture entailed considerably more work than hunting and gathering. Moreover, as God warned Adam, it was more exhausting work than the activities it replaced. Farmers have typically depended heavily on one or two species of grain or tuber (wheat, maize, rice, potatoes). If the crop failed they starved: recall the potato blight that caused the great Irish famine. As well as being less reliable, their food supply was poorer in nutritional quality, with more carbohydrates and less protein and vitamins.

In addition, agriculture was also bad for people’s health. Dense settlement facilitated the transmission of disease and made it more difficult to dispose of human waste away from the living area. The clearing of woodland for farming created habitats for mosquitoes.

Why then did our ancestors give up their customary way of life and switch to agriculture? Mark Nathan Cohen (The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press, 1977) argues that for a long time they knew how to plant, weed, and even irrigate crops, and, like many Amazonian groups today, did so selectively on a small scale. Not only did they hunt, fish and forage; they gardened too. But they chose not to farm until forced to do so by the gradually rising pressure of population on resources. For all its disadvantages, agriculture can yield more food per unit area, thereby supporting a denser population.

Indeed, who would voluntarily exchange the excitement of the hunt, the easygoing companionship of the foraging expedition, or the creative experimentation of rainforest gardening for the monotonous, backbreaking toil of tilling the soil?

The prehistoric development of gardening skills demonstrates that technological progress did occur in “primitive” communities and, moreover, that it tended to take more ecologically sustainable forms than it has in class society. Thus the transition to agriculture did not mark the beginning of technological progress.

Some have suggested that the Neolithic Revolution may have been socially regressive in yet another sense. Contemporary Stone Age groups are culturally open. Intermarriage is common across the boundaries not only of local bands but also of broader speech communities. Among bushmen, “individuals are free to move from group to group, partake of local resources, and participate in whatever cooperative social efforts occur wherever they are” (Cohen, p. 62). The same will apply, we hope, in a future socialist society. In the view of many though not all prehistorians, the wide geographical distribution of identical sets of tools (e.g., the Acheulian tool complex) indicates a similar cultural openness in the Stone Age. Only in the period immediately preceding the shift to agriculture did Stone Age society fracture into closed “tribal” groups.

The argument, however, that the Neolithic Revolution and the class societies that emerged from it have been socially regressive in all respects cannot be sustained. Their cultural, scientific and technological achievements cannot be denied. But as we contemplate the last few millennia, full of suffering, futility, and moral and ecological degradation, we may well wonder whether the losses outweigh the gains.

Will the establishment of socialism justify in retrospect the painful path that led to it? Socialism, unfortunately, is a much more uncertain prospect than Marx assumed. If we don’t awake in time from the nightmare of class society, the Neolithic Revolution will have to be regarded as the crucial event that triggered the fatal degeneration of our species and the final devastation of our planet. After all, in the Stone Age we already had socialism, even though it was at a fairly low technological level.

To save the species and the planet, what we need is a return to the communal life of those days but at a higher technological level.


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