Você está na página 1de 4

THE

AGRICULTURAL

FOUNDATIONS

OF

CIVILIZATION

Thomas

Wessel

Thomas Wessel is Professor of History, Montana State University. His publications on agriculture include Agriculture in the Great Plains, 1876-1930 and Great
Plains Renaissance: Essays on Agricultural Development in the Great Plains, 1920-1950.

J.H. Fabre o n c e l a m e n t e d , "History celebrates the battlefields w h e r e i n we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the King's b a s t a r d s but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. This is the way of Human folly." J a c o b Molschott reduced all h u m a n u n d e r standing to t h e s i m p l e p h r a s e , " D e r Mensch ist w a s er i s s t , " M a n k i n d is what he eats. Although both g e n t l e m e n were perhaps overstating the case, they were and remain s u r p r i s i n g l y close to the mark. We s t i l l do n o t k n o w the origins of wheat, but we might be able to say something a b o u t the i m p a c t of wheat on the d e v e l o p m e n t of w e s t e r n civilization. On the other hand, we do have from the work of Paul M a n g e l s d o r f a pretty good idea of the o r i g i n s of maize. The fact that wheat and b a r l e y became the s t a p l e c r o p s of the N e a r East a n d c o r n a n d b e a n s the s t a p l e crops of the N e w W o r l d had a p r o f o u n d effect on the development of civilization in those two areas of the world. It is d i f f i c u l t to s t a t e f r o m the archaeological evidence just when gathering o f w i l d wheat leaped to settled cultivation of w h e a t f i e l d s , but probably no sooner than 4-5000 B.C. The earliest wheat and barley varieties were as primitive as the societies that cultivated t h e m . Einkorn, a single seed wheat, a n d e m m e t , a two seed wheat, dominated the early cultivation. Soon some hybrids of 4-6 grains usually called bread-wheat made its appearance, but the p r i n c i p a l difficulty of cultivation remained. With the cultivation of small grains, the former hunting-gathering societies made a significant step backward in nutrition. The h u m a n body is an e x t r e m e l y efficient consumer of food stuffs, but is a poor m a n u f a c t u r e r of the b a s i c

ingredients necessary to s u s t a i n life. Most of the v i t a m i n s , trace m i n e r a l s , and p a r t i c u l a r l y the amino acids necessary to build b o d y p r o t e i n m u s t come already p r e p a c k a g e d in t h e f o o d stuffs consumed. There are approximately 20 amino acids in nature, I0 of which are "essential" to human g r o w t h . None are m a n u f a c t u r e d in the process of digestion, but are indeed, b r o k e n out of the food s t u f f s in t h e d i g e s t i o n cycle. So long as s o c i e t i e s d e p e n d e d on hunting and the c o n s u m p t i o n of red meat, most of the necessary amino acids were available in sufficient q u a n t i t y . The move to s m a l l g r a i n c u l t u r e w a s another matter. Of the ten e s s e n t i a l amino a c i d s , wheat and/or barley provide sufficient q u a n t i t e s of o n l y one or two, leucine and p h e n y l a l a n i n e . Small grains are very low in lysine and wheat c o n t a i n s v i r t u a l l y no t r y p t o phane. In order to g a i n t h e m i s s i n g amino a c i d s , e a r l y farmers h a d to continue to hunt or find an alternative means o f p r o v i d i n g red meat from "domesticated" animals. Herding, first goats, (milk also provides the m i s s i n g amino a c i d s ) a n d t h e n c a t t l e , was p a r a m o u n t to b a s i c s u r v i v a l in a n y meaningful m a n n e r . The problem was that domesticated animals also ate the small g r a i n s . Consequently, early society tended to d i v i d e its labor at nearly the same time between cultivation a n d h e r d s m e n . A biotic relationship developed b e t w e e n the two groups. The m e e t i n g grounds for t h e exchange of f o o d s t u f f s w e r e c a l l e d cities. It is likely not s i m p l y a coincidence t h a t Neolithic man is credited with the beginnings of settled agriculture and also t h e b u i l d i n g of the first towns. J e r i c h o , one of the oldest towns in the M i d d l e E a s t , w a s first s u s t a i n e d by hunting, then abandoned only to return as the c e n t e r

10

Agriculture

and

Human

Values

Spring

1984

of a g r i c u l t u r a l development. Incidentally, o n l y as an a g r i c u l t u r a l settlement did the residents of Jericho find it necessary to b u i l d the w a l l s that Joshua was so contemptuous of. While s o l v i n g t h e i r p r o b l e m of an appropriate a m i n o acid balance by introducing a n i m a l h u s b a n d r y into the agricultural mix, e a r l y N e a r E a s t e r n societies had additional problems w i t h small grain agriculture. Small grains are a timely crop. It must be p l a n t e d more or l e s s "on time" and more critically, it must be h a r v e s t e d "on time." If left in the field too long it's lost from the harvest. A society successfully e n g a g e d in s m a l l g r a i n agriculture has to develop a relatively a c c u r a t e s e n s e of time, and i m p o s e either u p o n i t s e l f , or a c c e p t the imposition from outside, the r e q u i s i t e discipline and order to make the system work. Also, small grain agriculture is particularly susceptible to brigandage. Unlike h u n t i n g , which c a n be d o n e continuously and the p r o d u c t c o n s u m e d immediately, small grains are harvested at a p a r t i c u l a r t i m e a n d s t o r e d for future use. Protection of the settlement then, such as the walls of Jericho and the creation of an army for that p u r p o s e , is n o t an u n l i k e l y occurrence. The subsequent division of society into t a s k - r e l a t e d p a r t s , h a s all k i n d s of i m p l i c a t i o n s . L e t me suggest only two. For one, the family organization that dominated early societal o r g a n i z a t i o n is l i k e l y to expand to i n c l u d e the w h o l e of the community, w i t h some k i n d of m i l i t a r y leadership. Monarchs in the M i d d l e East from the earliest dates known, are remembered as warriors above all else. Wise Joshua may have been, but he also

Once it was discovered that society could produce those who worked the fields and those who contemplated and acted as leaders, it was not likely to change.
carried a sword. Once it was d i s c o v e r e d that s o c i e t y could p r o d u c e t h o s e w h o w o r k e d the fields and those who c o n t e m p l a t e d and acted as leaders, it was not likely to change. Indeed, leaders were more likely to find a l l k i n d s of w a y s to maintain their e x a u l t e d p o s i t i o n and

retain the w o r k discipline of t h e incipient farmers. One way to do so, other than simply by the force of arms, was to raise w o r k in the f i e l d to a virtue in i t s e l f . Priestly classes might aid in convincing the majority of the need to work to feed the nobility. In any event, such divisions of "labor" occur in Near Eastern society in rapid order o n c e a g r i c u l t u r e is f i r m l y established. Small grains, however, p o s e an additional problem for s o c i e t y . The return for seed sown is quite low. In the n e o l i t h i c period and centuries thereafter, the y i e l d was p r o b a b l y no better than 4-6 to one. To i n c r e a s e p o p u l a t i o n in a n y s i g n i f i c a n t way, substantially more l a n d h a d to b e brought under cultivation, o c c a s i o n i n g more difficulty in p r o t e c t i n g it, and occasioning more military for protection and for use in stealing from those nearby. One m i g h t question the causal relationships b r i e f l y o u t l i n e d h e r e , but the basic p r o b l e m s of small grain agriculture are simply given. I am not suggesting that early man was a molecular biologist. Of c o u r s e t h e y had no formal k n o w l e d g e of nutrition, but the m a n i f e s t a t i o n s of d i e t a r y deficiency are so gross that it w o u l d not take long for mankind to figure out who s u r v i v e d b e t t e r a n d w h o w o r s e . Those w i t h a c c e s s to b o t h m e a t and bread were clearly the winners. To illustrate this point let me make a substantial leap f o r w a r d in time to an era where our knowledge of events is on f i r m e r g r o u n d . We all tell our students of the black death of the 14th and ]5th centuries, b r o u g h t to E u r o p e by black rats with devastating effect. When we l o o k at the v i c t i m s of the black death, the proportion of p e a s a n t deaths to deaths among the b e t t e r off is clear. Most of E u r o p e ' s p e a s a n t r y sustained t h e m s e l v e s on a d i e t t h a t consisted of little m o r e t h a n b a r l e y soup and beer. Beer, by the way, h a s more n u t r i t i o n a l value than barley soup. The essential amino acids supplemented by red m e a t w a s l a r g e l y absent from p e a s a n t diets, but not of those who rule. It m a y be t h a t the plague was so d e v a s t a t i n g in p a r t because Europe had a p o p u l a t i o n that suffered from fundamental malnutrition. It might also be more than coincidental that t h e t i m e of t h e b l a c k death corresponded w i t h the change from barley-based to w h e a t - b a s e d agri-

Wessel

: The

Social

Sciences

11

culture, an increase in cattle levels, and a substantial increase in red meat available to the g e n e r a l p o p u l a t i o n . Maybe when the king protected his deer and fish f o r h i s o w n u s e , he k n e w something. In a n y e v e n t , the D u t c h Historian B.H. S l i c k e r V a n B a t h h a s made a p e r s u a s ire argument for malnutrition as a f a c t o r in the b l a c k death. In s u m m a r y it is p o s s i b l e to postulate a g i v e n set of c u l t u r a l and political parameters for western civilizaton based on the f u n d a m e n t a l considerations of small grain agriculture a n d t h e f a c t t h a t w h e a t contains little or no lysine. Settled a g r i c u l t u r e , of course, did not occur just i n the N e a r E a s t . It began at roughly the same time in the New World - during the Neolthic period. Evidence of the e x i s t e n c e of " s i n g l e pod c o r n " h a s b e e n f o u n d in s t r a t a dated 8000 B.C. Undoubtedly, h o w e v e r , true s e d e n t a r y l i f e b a s e d on f i e l d crops does n o t b e g i n u n t i l s o m e t i m e about 3-4000 B.C. D e t a i l s a b o u t the agriculture of the c e n t r a l v a l l e y of Mexico in t h e N e o l i t h i c period is virtually unknown. Archaeological work in this region began only in the 1890's and only intermittently to the p r e s e n t day. N e v e r t h e l e s s , it is p o s s i b l e to say some t h i n g s with reasonable certainty. Maize was clearly the principal crop raised by New World farmers. The first point to make about maize is that it c a n n o t g r o w in its common form u n l e s s c u l t i v a t e d . Maize r e v e r t s to a s i m p l e grass if n o t cultivated. Botanists, archaeologists, and historians h a v e d e b a t e d for y e a r s about the origin of maize. Two c o m m o n maize-related g r a s s e s , Teosinte and Tripsacum, seemed to b e t h e b e s t candidates as the p r e c u r s o r of m o d e r n corn. Biologists, however, have pointed out that b o t h a r e p e r e n n i a l s and possess w h a t a m o u n t s to a g e n e t i c r o a d b l o c k to the d e v e l p m e n t of the modern maize annual. Paul M a n g e l s d o r f in the l a s t decade worked out a possible origin sequence . He postulated that a c r o s s of two o t h e r primitive maize r e l a t i v e s , one c o m m o n to the Central Valley of Mexico and the other common to the lower elevations of Peru, produced a p r i m i t i v e s i n g l e pod corn t h a t e l i m i n a t e d the genetic roadblock. If f u r t h e r c r o s s e s t o o k place first w i t h t r i p s a c u m and then teosinte, the p r o d u c t w o u l d be m o d e r n corn as it e x i s t e d in t h e n e o l i t h i c period.

Probably, s o m e t h i n g like the s c h e m e suggested b y M a n g e l s d o r f did take place. It suggests that c o m m u n i c a t i o n between p e o p l e in t h e N e o l i t h i c New World was at a h i g h e r level than once supposed. The importance of the production of maize was the r e t u r n the crop provided for seed planted. While Neolithic farmers in t h e N e a r E a s t could expect a return of about 4 to I, New World f a r m e r s regularly could expect a r e t u r n of 40 to I. Maize, however, has much the same n u t r i t i o n a l deficiencies as w h e a t . It c o n t a i n s large q u a n t i t i e s of o n l y o n e of the essential amino acids and only moderate quantities of the rest. When consumed in combination with other and p r o b a b l y even o l d e r crops, lima beans and pumpkins, using those two in a g e n e r i c sense, all of the essential amino acids are provided in s u f f i c i e n t q u a n t i t i e s to sustain l i f e at a h e a l t h y level. Beans and squash, pumpkins, etc. have a high level of return for seed p l a n t e d . The need to introduce animal h u s b a n d r y as a nutritional s u p p l e m e n t is s i m p l y absent in the New World. Corn, beans, and other s i m i l a r crops have an additional characteristic worth noting. Where w h e a t is a v e r y t i m e l y crop, N e w W o r l d crops are almost timeless. That is, if a farmer f a i l e d to harvest his corn a n d b e a n s in the fall, it was q u i t e safe to l e a v e t h e m for harvest at a later time. C o r n and beans come as close to being indestructable as v e g e t a b l e matter gets. Where Old World agriculture placed a p r e m i u m on d i s c i p l i n e , o r d e r and a s e n s e of time, New World agriculture had few imperatives at all except the need to cultivate. Old World a g r i c u l t u r e v i r t u a l l y was w i t h o u t c u l t i v a t i o n o n c e the seed was planted. Wheat was s c a t t e r e d across the field and a l l o w e d to g r o w a l o n g with whatever else w a s in the f i e l d . Indeed, the need to e x p a n d O l d W o r l d agriculture in the a b s e n c e of a m e a n s to separate wheat from its competitors, weeds, may have led to i m p r o v e m e n t s in seed bed preparation, the use of plows, and the consequent additional n e e d for animals. Corn was planted in h i l l s where only a c r u d e h o e was n e c e s s a r y . B e c a u s e of t h e e n o r m o u s r e t u r n for corn, increases in p r o d u c t i o n c o u l d be made relatively easily with a d d i t i o n a l hills. Sustaining a fairly large population increase did not take anywhere near the a d d i t i o n a l l a n d or labor that a s i m i l a r increase would demand in the N e a r East. It has b e e n

12

Agriculture

and

Human

Values

Spring

1984

estimated that in the Central Valley of Mexico some areas of cultivation could sustain t h e y e a r l y needs of the population at the rate of 25 people to an acre. Corn, beans, and squash could be planted literally t o g e t h e r r a t h e r than in s e p a r a t e f i e l d s . The lower growing squashes, in fact, acted as a ground cover that reduced weed populations once the p l a n t s were well up. It may be that agriculture of this sort rather than p l a c i n g a p r e m i u m on work, p l a c e d a p r e m i u m on l e i s u r e . Certainly, it w a s n o t d i f f i c u l t to leave cultivation to w o m e n w h i l e m e n fought, dreamed, and built monuments to gods. While it may be p u s h i n g too far to suggest that the a g r i c u l t u r e of the Neolithic period established the direction of civilization for all time, it is clear t h a t the d e v e l o p m e n t of cities, the breakdown of gens, and the rise of stratified societies with their priestly and r u l i n g c l a s s e s was n o t likely in the a b s e n c e of a g r i c u l t u r a l "development. The spread of agriculture in the Old World was rapid, while the techniques of agriculture c h a n g e d very .slowly indeed. The plow that a l l o w e d early man to h a r n e s s a n i m a l s for w o r k appeared in the 3rd millenium B.C. and was l a r g e l y unchanged until the appearance of the moldboard plow in the Middle Ages A.D. Cultivation of small grains in 16th Century England was not significantly different from the methods used by n e o l i t h i c man. Not until the 18th century were substantial

While it may be pushing too far to suggest that the agriculture of the Neolithic period established the direction of civilization/or all time, it is clear that the development o/cities, the breakdown of gens, and the rise o/ stratified societies with their priestly and ruling classes was not likely in the absence of agricultural development.

improvements made. In the N e w W o r l d agriculture spread as w e l l to as far north as t h e St. L a w r e n c e Valley, t h r o u g h o u t the e a s t e r n p a r t of the United S t a t e s and , of course , throughout the southeast. Its southern migration stretched to the tip of South America. The c r o p s d o m e s t i c a t e d by Neolithic man r e m a i n e d the s t a p l e of farming I n d i a n s in t h e N e w W o r l d t h r o u g h t h e t i m e of t h e E u r o p e a n invasions. European f a r m e r s b r o u g h t with them to t h e N e w W o r l d some technology, b u t m o r e i m p o r t a n t l y , a sense of time and of w o r k a n d s o c i a l organization grounded in the agriculture of s m a l l g r a i n s . When combined with the p r o d u c t i v e c a p a c i t y of New World p l a n t s , the b e g i n n i n g of American agriculture was well established.