Why the switch from foraging to farming (Ft. Editorial)

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors gave up foraging for food and took up farming, one of the most important and debated decisions in history.

Was farming more efficient than foraging? Did the easily hunted animals die out? Did the environment change?

A new study by Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico argues that early farming was not more productive than foraging, but people took it up for social and demographic reasons.

In Monday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bowles analyzed what it would take to farm under primitive conditions. He concluded farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.

But, Bowles notes, farming became the most common way of living between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago because of its contribution to population growth and military power.

Without the need for constant movement, child-rearing would have been easier and safer, leading to a population increase, Bowles said. And since stored grain might be looted, farmer communities could have banded together for defense and would have eventually pushed out neighboring foragers, he suggests.

Brian Fagan, a professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Bowles’ ideas “provocative and fascinating.”

It had been suspected that the earliest farming was not necessarily more productive, said Fagan, who was not part of the research.

“What he does is to draw attention to the social and demographic factors that contributed so importantly to the spread of farming,” Fagan said. “This is a useful contribution to a debate about agricultural origins that has been under way for generations.”

From Yahoo! News


And thus grains spread across the land and the perfectly viable hunter gatherer diet began to slip into the dusty recess of our human past.  Sure, as the article pointed out, there were social benefits (population growth and military power).  But at what cost?  Modern science seems to indicate our health.

It’s been a priority to write this post for some time, it was just a matter of waiting for the right article to come along so I could segue in.  Low and behold a write-up detailing the benefits of farming amongst early humans comes along and I’ve found my fodder.

This will probably sound preachy, and in a way I’m about to do a bit of dietary promotion.  But the real focus of this editorial rant is to talk about experimental archaeology.

I consider myself almost maniacal about my health and fitness.  I CrossFit train at least five days a week with the gang.  I drink very little, I don’t smoke and aside from the occasional cupcake binge, I’ve always maintained a pretty healthy diet.  In the past year I’ve been making the transition away from grains towards a Paleo diet.  For those who aren’t familiar with the Paleo diet, I’ll allow Wikipedia to summarize:

The Paleo diet is a nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various human species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic era—a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. In common usage, such terms as the “Paleolithic diet” also refer to the actual ancestral human diet.  Centered on commonly available modern foods, the “contemporary” Paleolithic diet consists mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.

One massive factor that drove me to sample this prehistoric lifestyle was my almost obsessive interest with early humans.  Reading article after article regarding subsistence food strategies among early humans and Neanderthals, I began to realize I didn’t want to just read about hunter gatherers anymore, I wanted the experience.  Most archaeologists have attempted some form of experimental archaeology in their career.  I’d played around with stone tools before and had even butchered sheep carcass (video) for one of my classes using homemade obsidian blades.  I knew from the start that this was going to be a step above an experiment, this was a commitment.  In order to see the results of the diet, I was going to have to stick with it.  Alas, modern times and a hectic work schedule make it nearly impossible for me to create an arsenal of stone tools and head to the nearest forest to find a treat.  Instead, I hunted the aisle of my local supermarket for what our early ancestors would have thrived on.  I knew where to begin, the Paleo diet is actually more common sense than anything, but two big helping hands were provided by Robb Wolf (author of The Paleo Solution) and Loren Cordain (author of The Paleo Diet for Athletes).  Both of these individuals peaked my interest by incorporating archaeology into their explanation of how the human diet has changed over the past few thousand years and how I, as a 21st Century Sexy Archaeologist, can get back on the band wagon of the hunter gatherer life-way.

Making the switch was not easy.  Grains and processed foods are everywhere.  And they are more often than not disguised as very tempting treats(Re: cupcakes).  The real challenge was convincing myself I didn’t need them.  Over the past year I’ve maintained somewhere between an 80 – 90% success rate.  I’ve seen improvements not only in my health, but in my physical performance as an athlete.  There is little doubt that it is this subtle shift in consumption, from a grain based to protein based dietary trend, that is responsible.  And remarkably, the Paleo diet has transgressed from a simple experiment to a set in stone lifestyle.

Experimental archaeology is a creative way of utilizing your field, whether you’re flintknapping bottle glass, building a balsa wood raft to sail across the Pacific, or modifying your diet to live like our hominid precursors.  I encourage all archaeologists to immerse themselves as much as possible into their work.  If you’re interested in trying out the Paleo diet, which I highly recommend, I suggest visiting the following websites where you can learn more.

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