I am committed to this enterprise: to climb the mountain to cut down the cedar, and leave behind me an enduring name. (Gilgamesh, The Epic of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk in Mesopotamia, c. 3000 bce)1
We are the absolute masters of that which the earth produces. We enjoy the mountains and the plains, the rivers are ours. We sow the seed and plant the trees. We fertilize the earth ... we stop, direct, and turn the rivers, in short, by our hands we endeavor, by our various operations in this world, to make, as it were, another nature. (Cicero, c. 106-43 bce, Roman statesman and writer, describing the Roman world-view)2
The transition from hunting-gathering and scavenging to agricultural production of some 10,000 bce is undoubtedly one of the major events in human history, an event which has been revolutionary in the sense that it entailed radical changes in people's relationship to nature and among themselves.4 This transformation, known as the Neolithic revolution, was actually comprised of many revolutions, taking place in different times and places.5 For at least 99 per cent of the duration of their existence, members of the omnivorous genus Homo had lived by hunting and gathering. This nomadic way of life, supplemented by scavenging, was presumably also shared by earlier hominids. Living in bands of well under 100 members, pre-neolithic societies had comparably low population density with fewer than two persons per square mile.6 At their own low level of material needs and wants, our hunter-gatherer and forager ancestors lived a decent life of original affluence.7 Although they had few material possessions, which are heavy and hampered mobility, they enjoyed exceptional abundance and leisure.8 As can be judged from anthropological findings, they were well nourished, and probably spent relatively few working hours to secure their subsistence.9 One hunter-gatherer could feed four or five people; thus, he was as "efficient" as an American farmer in 1870 or a French one in 1938, though he needed much more space.10 Prehistoric people shared with each other the means of life, and would surely have been shocked at the modern idea that food represents a commodity to be bought and sold on the free market.
This mode of subsistence procurement represents an excellent system as long as the climate is warm enough and as long as the world remains a thinly populated place. However, given a number of changing climatic and social factors, the existential framework of the species changed, resulting in gradual demographic and geographic expansion. During this process of expansion, human societies depleted their local and regional natural environments, and were forced to change their mode of existence.11 Sedentary and intensified forms of agriculture emerged in part as a response to wildlife scarcity.12 This revolution in food procurement generally followed the collapse of the biggame hunting cultures in northern Europe and the Americas, initiating what is generally known as the Mesolithic period or "Middle Stone Age," during which people obtained necessary protein from fish, shellfish, and forest deer.
In the Middle East, where the age of the big-game hunters had ended much earlier than in the Northern Hemisphere, the pattern of food procurement became even more diversified. People turned from hunting giant wild cattle and red deer to preying on smaller species such as sheep, goats, and antelopes, and paying increasing attention to fish, crab, shellfish, birds, and snails. The expansion of human food procurement systems to marine ecosystems is thus a very recent historical occurrence.13 Moreover, Neolithic humans selectively collected acorns, pistachios, and other nuts, wild legumes, and wild grains, a practice that would eventually lead to more conscious forms of agriculture.14
The general historical trend in the Late and Middle Stone Age has been from abundance to scarcity of big game animals, with humans hunting ever further down the food chain.15 This led not only to an intensification of efforts on the part of hunters and incipient agriculturists, but also to reduced biodiversity on our planet.16 At the same time, I must emphasize that the beginning of sedentary modes of food production - the intensified domestication of plants and animals - was a momentous occurrence in human prehistory. Imagine, 10,000 years ago almost all human societies lived by hunting and gathering; 8,000 years later, hunter-gatherer societies were a distinct minority.17 These new subsistence strategies of the Neolithic resulted in more stable food supply, but only at the cost of greater energy expenditure.
There are several theories about the origins of sedentary food production. One suggests that human population pressure was an important factor, forcing people to turn to agriculture only when there was no other alternative.18 The transition from gathering to cultivation of root crops may have been almost unconscious, for many tubers are easy to grow. Cutting off the top and burying it, for example, can result in the germination of the African yam. Hunter-gatherer bands familiar with such plants cultivated them to supplement food supplies only in times of shortage. After tens of thousand years of digging up wild edible roots with wooden sticks, it would have been an easy step to use the same stick for planting seeds.19
Early animal domestication may have been a similar step. Several types of animals amenable to taming - including dogs, goats, sheep, and wild oxen
- were widely distributed throughout the Old World during the Upper Pleistocene.20 In the case of dogs, the process probably began at least 12,000 years ago. It is not difficult to imagine how an alliance between humans and canids may have originated. At the end of the Pleistocene ice age, people and canids were competing for the same food. A particularly placid or submissive canid pup scavenging around a human camp might have survived to adulthood accepting the human group as its pack.21 Domestic animals constituted the original "slaves," upon which the ownership of other living beings was subsequently based.
By taking up sedentary food growing, people began to alter the biosphere in ways that, in the long run, would prove much more far reaching than megafauna extinction and just as irreversible.22 A contemporary observer could not have perceived the destructive potential of small groups of people settling on one place to cultivate species of plants that would come to be known as crops. The original enterprise of food domestication was small in scale and not always successful.23 By the time large-scale civilizations flourished, extensive tracts of natural systems in temperate and subtropical regions of Europe, Asia, and the Americas had been replaced by human-directed systems, sometimes called agro-ecosystems.24 Within the last two millennia, large portions of Africa and the Americas have similarly been converted to agriculture. The introduction of food procurement systems based on farming has been followed by loss of biodiversity through processes of intensified predation and habitat displacement.25
Environmental sociologist Marina Fischer-Kowalsky refers to this new social setting and dynamic as a form of "terrestrial colonization."26 This novel social adaptation to transformed landscape following the mass extinction of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene was accompanied by increasingly hierarchical forms of social life. Ancient civilizations finally emerged out of early city-states and institutionalized forms of inequality and violence. The exploitation of domesticated animal power and the domestication of plants species are at the root of "civilization," playing an important role in subsequent population growth and geographic distribution of humans.27 Animals pulled the plow, animals carried produce to market, and animals provided a protein-rich complement to a grain-based diet. Although wind power was utilized to carry cargo by water, fire remained nonetheless the most important source of extrasomatic energy. It made possible the creation of artifacts we normally associate with the civilizing process such as ceramics and metal objects.28
Division of labor emerged with craft specialization, and so did individual ownership. Pre-modern class structures arose during the past six millennia, based primarily on slave and tributary relationships. Urbanization became a significant factor in providing the cultural bonds necessary for complex societies. Tradition and kinship remained very important in this context, but we must also recognize the beginnings of a social process that slowly separated the institutional spheres of politics and economics.
The emergence of upper classes with privileged access to food and admin-istrational powers is a characteristic of Neolithic adaptations that have stayed with us to this very day. There is good reason for believing that sedentary agriculture led to the development of private property and "work" as distinct categories of life, separate from other spheres and activities. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt points out, the word for "tilling" later came to mean "laboring" and this association implies servitude on the part of humans. Sedentary agriculture, as is well documented, also provided the historical framework for social stratification, violence toward women and animals, and the destruction of wilderness areas.29 As the European philosophers, beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau clearly saw, the Neolithic rise of private property in both its pre-modern and modern forms amounted to mutual slavery:30
The first man, who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself saying "this is mine" and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind by sullying up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: "Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to us all, and the Earth itself to nobody."31
The social condition described by Rousseau began historically with the Neolithic revolution. However, the real disaster in the making was much broader than even Rousseau imagined. The problem was not merely intrasocial in nature but, most important, also interspecies. In short, the adaptations in human food-procurement systems strengthened human ecocidal tendencies, a development reflected in all major civilizations of the pre-modern era.
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