An overview of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’
The word “revolution” conjures up the image of a quick, qualitative, monumental and tumultuous change. The Neolithic or so-called agricultural revolution did, in fact, bring about a qualitative and monumental transformation of human social groups, but it was in no sense quick, although it must have included tumultuous episodes. Its commencement is usually dated to the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,600 years ago.
This transition is summarized in “The Human Past” edited by Chris Scarre: “Already during the final stages of the last Ice Age, certain groups of hunters and gatherers had begun to exploit their environment in a new way, moving beyond simple collecting to the intentional management of selected plant species. Thus began the process of domestication and cultivation that has transformed the world. Spreading inexorably from its origins in a number of separate regions, the shift from food collection to food production dramatically increased the human carrying capacity of the planet. In the process, the environment was transformed, as modest clearings gave way to fields, and forests were felled to provide farmland for ever-increasing human numbers.” (London: Thames & Hudson, 2nd ed., 2009, p. 182)
Scarre suggests at least seven areas of the planet where agriculture probably developed independently: the New Guinea highlands, the Yanzi and Yellow River basins, the so-called Fertile Crescent, Sub-Saharan Africa, Amazonia, Central Mexico and Eastern North America.
Agriculture based on accumulated knowledge of matriarchal clans
It’s important to note, however, the roots of this movement toward a new mode of food production. It’s scarcely an arguable point that the humans who used foraging, fishing and hunting for food production would have had profound knowledge and understanding of the natural world. Their very survival would have depended on that knowledge. Anthropologists have been astounded at the depth of knowledge that the seafaring peoples of the Pacific islands had of the night sky, a knowledge of the positions and movement of the stars and planets that guaranteed them safe passage from island to island without the use of compasses or sextants. Similarly, the foraging and hunting peoples of the African plains understood in detail the behavior patterns of the animals they depended on for part of their sustenance and otherwise shared their environment with. And the tribal women of the Amazonian rain forest knew the useful characteristics of thousands of plants.
Anthropological evidence makes it clear that women were not passive onlookers of the movement to agricultural production. As they had previously been the main foragers, their knowledge of plants led them to early experiments in selective cultivation. As keepers of the fire, they were the innovators, first, of the use of cooking stones and later of pottery, for preparing, heating and preserving food and for food storage. They also had an important role in the domestication of small animals.
On the other hand, the men’s hunting-based familiarity with large animals gave them the edge in the domestication and management of herds of cattle and draft animals that could be trained to pull plows over large expanses of cropland. Like pairing marriages, which developed a social bond outside of matrilineal kinship, intensive farming, managed by men but aided by their wives and children, had the long-term effect of fragmenting the matrilineal solidarity of clan and tribal society.
The increase in food yield from farming combined with new storage techniques meant periodic surpluses, important for the cold months in temperate zones, but also introducing a new social issue: Who would have control of the surplus and decide how it should be disposed of?
Complex, dispersed, nonuniform process
In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Frederick Engels began his discussion of the agricultural revolution with the following words: “Thus far we have been able to follow a general line of development applicable to all peoples at a given period without distinction of place. With the beginning of barbarism [the unfortunate term that early anthropologists used to describe the transition from foraging and hunting to agriculture], however, we have reached a stage when the difference in the natural endowments of the two hemispheres of the earth comes into play. … Owing to these differences in natural conditions, the population of each hemisphere now goes on its own way, and different landmarks divide the particular stages in each of the two cases.” (New York: International Publishers, 1972, pp. 89-90)
Engels noted that there are important differences in what animal species were available for domestication and which cultivable cereals were available in the Eastern and Western hemispheres, and this makes global generalizations about the introduction of agriculture difficult. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” Jared Diamond presents a detailed analysis of the multitude of material factors, including those mentioned by Engels, that advanced or impeded the development of human productivity in various parts of the planet. (New York: Norton, 1997) In areas where crop cultivation was not feasible because of poor climatic or soil conditions, nomadic or semi-nomadic patterns based on hunting and/or fishing continued. Under these conditions, the domestication and breeding of herds was the primary form of surplus accumulation.
Resistance to agricultural production
A caveat needs to be added to the obvious advantage of plant cultivation and animal breeding in increasing the available supply of food, however. Ethnologists who have done field studies of the two distinct modes of food production have noted that, from a nutritional point of view, the results of foraging and hunting often result in a more varied and more nutritious diet, and from a work output point of view, foraging and hunting is less labor intensive and less time consuming.
So the strong resistance to the introduction of farming that has been reported for some contemporary foraging and hunting groups who are able to sustain themselves with only a few hours of foraging each week and occasional hunting successes is suggestive of similar misgivings by prehistoric groups living in bountiful circumstances.
Anthropologist Richard Lee’s paper, “What Hunters Do for a Living,” appears in the misnamed book, “Man the Hunter,” a collection of anthropological reports whose contents actually contain abundant evidence of the predominant importance of women’s foraging activities over those of hunting. Lee’s paper focuses on the !Kung Bushmen of Botswana. He writes: “A diet based on mongongo nuts is in fact more reliable than one based on cultivated foods, and it is not surprising, therefore, that when a Bushman was asked why he hadn’t taken to agriculture, he replied, ‘Why should we plant, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?’” (Edited by Richard Lee and Irven DeVore. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1968, p. 33)
Surplus and social inequality
The probable key to what ultimately motivated the transition to production based on agriculture most likely lies in the resulting surplus beyond the group’s immediate needs. With the technological innovation that preservation and storage techniques represented, the surplus was a source of potential economic and political power previously unknown. And as patrilineal, patrilocal families replaced matrilineal clans, that surplus brought a new, higher economic, social and political status to men. Replacing the matrilineal clan and the pairing marriage was an increasingly sedentary society with a male-dominated political structure based on male control of the agricultural surplus: the herds of cattle and stores of grain.
What was lost included the communality and social equality of women and men; the wise guidance of the councils of older women; the humane, communal ethics that ensured the well-being of all the members of the clan; the collective care that was of such great benefit to the children; and the relaxed, relatively unrestricted enjoyment of exogamous sex.
We’ve already had a glimpse, in the concluding words of Evelyn Reed at the end of Part 10 of this series, of the likely process through which matrilineal society in general and pairing marriage in particular were qualitatively transformed. In this installment, we’ve outlined the economic basis of this monumental change: the introduction of agricultural production. In the next installment, we’ll take up this historic, actually still prehistoric, transformation in greater detail, focusing especially on the political implications for “marriage” of what Marxists call “the overthrow of mother right.”
McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order, send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd floor, N.Y., NY 10011 with name and address, or order from Amazon.com.