The Onset of Agriculture in our Ancient World
The agricultural revolution changed the future for human life on this plant. This occurred approximately 10,000 years ago. Human beings have only been consuming grains for 0.5% of the total human genome. This represents only about 300 generations out of the 76,000 generations which encompass human history. Consequently, we have not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to adapt to such an abrupt change in the diet and thrive. Oh, we may survive eating a diet high in grains, but we won’t thrive. A study of archeological evidence of human remains from around the world reveals that the advent of agriculture and grain domestication marked a period in human dietary history which saw a decline in human health. Specifically, there is evidence of poorer dental health, increased iron deficiency anemia, increased infection and bone loss.
The first grain cultivated was einkorn wheat by the ancient Natufian culture. They were a nomadic culture from the Levant, the region we now call Syria, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon roughly 12,000 years ago. The ancient Natufians lived during a time of climate fluctuations as the Earth transitioned from the last Ice Age to a warmer, less turbulent one called the Younger Dryas, which was very conducive to farming. They originated as successful foragers and hunters but were just as successful at their attempts to domesticate wild wheat, which later became one of the main domesticated crops of the Neolithic era. There is plenty of evidence that the Natufians were also proficient in fishing and hunting, particularly the mountain Gazelle of the region. Despite this, they were one of the first cultures to have permanent settlements. Although they are credited with grain domestication by saving seeds from one year to the next, they were not considered to trigger the agricultural revolution. Although the ancient Natufians probably did not master agriculture, they certainly made it not only possible, but a more desirable lifestyle.
The practice of grain cultivation did not reach Scandinavia and England until as recently as 5,000 years ago. Rice was cultivated in Asia around 7,000 years ago. Maize (corn) was cultivated also around 7,000 years ago, but this originated in South and Central America. Other grains followed with the most recent cultivation of grain being oats in Europe only 3,000 years ago. Although these grains have been part of almost every civilization on Earth today, human beings are not genetically adapted to eating these sources of carbohydrates. Nutritionally, they are considered less than optimal foods.
Historically speaking, this represents quite a dichotomy. On one hand, if the agricultural revolution never occurred, human civilization many never have advanced to the degree it is today; and certainly not in the same time frame. Population would have progressed but with much slower growth. The industrial revolution would likely not have occurred when it did; maybe never at all. As the Paleolithic era advanced to the Neolithic era, humans transitioned from a life of hunting to one of farming. They began by making a conscious choice to bring wild plants back to their camp in an attempt to “domesticate” the grains. Eventually they tried growing only the most favorable varieties. This was first done quite by chance as there was no template in which to mimic.
Early humans also moved to domesticating animals around 8500 BC. The earliest known sites of domestication was in the Fertile Crescent and in China. Domestication is a process by which human beings attempt to control the reproduction of a species to better meet our needs. All the domesticated animals existing today were chosen due to certain traits which made their domestication easier. As farming and herding spread, hunter-gatherers had less and less opportunity to expand their territories. Conflicts arose as farmers continued to expand throughout the fertile lands. Farming societies acquired the advantages of a stable food supply which afforded them political and military advantages over the hunter-gatherers. However, farming land was limited. Geographical expansions north and south are less desirable than east and west due to growing seasons and the stability of temperature fluctuations.
The advent of farming brought with it many health problems. The infectious diseases spread from individual to individual easily in farming communities. A similar problem is encountered among the herds of domesticated animals (hence, the widespread overuse of antibiotics among domesticated animal farms today). It is believed that measles and tuberculosis originated from cattle and influenza arose from pigs and ducks. It is well documented that these early grain farmers were first to experience a reduction in stature, increased infant mortality, shorter lifespan and more infectious disease than previous generations of hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era. These farmers also experienced iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis and bone mineral deficiencies. This is seen even in today’s modern culture in populations that eat a large percentage of grains and don’t eat much animal protein. Anthropological evidence also revealed tooth enamel defects and more dental caries. There is now substantial evidence that these negative findings may be directly related to the mainly cereal grain diet of these first farmers.
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