Sapiens. The second chapter: The Agricultural Revolution. Wheat, writing, accountants, poets and why bonobos females do not suffer from gender gap
As promised in my first article about Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, the book that I am currently reading, I will share my learnings after each chapter.
Being dense in facts, figures and cross-disciplinary knowledge, it deserves slice by slice food for thought digestion.
I have never reasonated with history in my school years, yet this masterpiece is how history should be taught in school, in a fun way, in an backward-forward, past to future connection, that will enable a Z or even an Alpha generation be curious.
The first chapter is called the Cognitive Revolution and covers the history timeline from billion years ago (with extensive exploration starting 70,000 years ago) to 13,000 years ago.
The second chapter is called the Agricultural Revolution and navigates from 9,000 years ago to 500 years ago.
For 2.5 million years humans “plucked wild figs and hunted wild sheep without deciding where fig trees would take root, in which meadow a herd of sheep should graze or which billy goat would inseminate which nanny goat”. Why do anything else - wonders Yuval Harari - when your lifestyle feeds you and supports a rich world of social structures, religious beliefs and political systems? Do not trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.
But 9,500-8,500 BC somewhere in the southern-eastern Turkey, western Iran and the Levant the transition to agriculture began. Sapiens started devoting their time and effort to manipulating the lives of just a few animal and plant species. And they did so for almost six milennia. No relevant plant or animal has been domesticated in the past 2,000 years, meaning that our cusine is that of ancient farmers:)
Why are there voices saying that The Agricultural Revolution is history’s biggest fraud, promising a 5-course Michelin star menu for humankind and giving instead more food for the elites and more and harder work for the majority?
- wheat domesticated Homo Sapiens and not viceversa. The word “domesticate” comes from the Latin “domus”, which means “house”. Who's the one living in a house? The wheat or the human? Wheat convinced Sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable existence, carrying water buckets under a scorching sun. It did not offer a better diet, nor an economic security, but more food per unit of territory, enabling humans to multiply exponentially and become over-dependent on agriculture. Wheat was a cunning mistress, luring Homo Sapiens to take its benefits without saying anything about the huge bills he will need to pay. Behind the obvious benefits of permanent settlements, the wheat domestication at large scale - worlwide it covers 2.25 million square kilometres - brought diseases, worries, exhaustion.
- the discrepancy between the evolutionary success and individual suffering. Be they cattle, sheep or Sapiens, all suffered from worse life conditions versus their foragers ancestors. The average person in Jericho village of 8,500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9,500 BC or 13,000 BC. A rare wild rhinoceros on the brink of extinction is probably more satisfied than a calf spending his short lifetime in a box, fattened to produce juicy meat. History is something that very few people have been doing, while everyone else was ploughing fields.
- an anxious, self-centered creature with a strong attachement to his house and separated from the neighbours. Before the transition to agriculture Earth was home to about 5-8 million nomadic foragers. By the first century AD the population was 250 million farmers and about 1-2 million foragers. Settling down turned the perception of home from the vast territory of hills, woods and the sky itself into small structures of wood, stone and mud. Still, it represents only 2% of the planet’s surface, meaning quite a limited perspective. Compared to non-existing long term planning worries of the nomadic people, the peasants became anxious individuals who would fear for their crops, trying to anticipate as much as possible, so they would not starve. This would turn in a vicious circle where extra food would be stored for bad times. Hey, you who were living during communist times, think on your habits to freeze eggplants, parsley, baked peppers and so on even if you can find them anywhere anytime:) Has your mom just offered you eggplant salad from last year’s frozen deposit while a new crop is available on the market?
- shared myths, from the Code of Hammurabi with its eye-on-eye superior man punishment and silver shekels for slaves to the Declaration of Independence and equal men rights are the ones to blame for revolutions and empires. One of the Hammurabi amendments states that “If a superior man should blind the eye of another superior man, they shall blind his eye”. But if the second is a slave, he shall weigh and deliver one-half of the slave’s value in silver. What if the second is a woman and that woman should die? Easy, they shall kill his daugher. Logical, isn’t it? Yet, Hammurabi called himself “a noble king. I have not been careless or negligent towards humankind, granted to my care by the god Enlil”. So, it is not him to blame for apparent injustice, but god Enlil who delegated his will. The principles of hierarchy or equality in the case of the Declaration of Independence are just a product of the fertile imagination of Sapiens.
- an imagined order can be kept if you constantly support people’s believing in its myths. While there must be true believers of a myth, in most of the cases it is by violence, coercion and manipulation that many people are hold to believe. The imagined order is embedded in the material world, shapes our desires and is inter-subjective. In modern times, romanticism, which encourages variety meshes perfectly with consumerism. A wealthy man in Egypt would never have thought to solve his relationiship crisis by taking his wife on a holiday in Babylon, but he might have built for her the somptuous tomb she has always wanted.
- if you want to escape from the prison of the imagined order, you will find yourself running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison, because the imagined order is inter-subjective. That means that you need millions, hundreds of millions to unite under a new shared myth in order to impose a new imagined reality. Are you capable of?
- huge amount of data (big data existend since the Agricultural Revolution) were generated and human brains could not store it for long, as their brains were not designed for this task. This is how the Sumerians invented writing in the form of two signs: numbers and symbols.
- Kushim might be the first recorded name in history as found on a clay table with administrative text. For sure he was rather an accountant than a prophet or poet, cause the Sumerians had a partial script that did not include the spoken language as a way of expressing feelimgs and emotions. They just needed it to record taxes and inventory.
- there is no justice in history. Black versus whites, Brahmins (Hindu priests) versus Shudras (Hindu servants), rich versus poor. The vicious circle continues to produce effects long after certain injustice has been fixed. Money comes to money, poverty to poverty, education to education. Most sociopolitical organisations lack logical or biological basis, they are just the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths. Do not underestimate the power of a myth in large community networks!
- almost everywhere men have got the better deal versus women, even if women are more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue and possess better social skills. The bonobo females are weaker than their male counterparts, but if the males overcome the limits, the females gang up and beat them. How come that in case of humans, where the success recipe is the ability to cooperate, the men, who are less skilfull control the women who are more skilfull?
- next time you are making fun of the fashion show with extreme flamboiant attire for men, wondering where masculinity has all been gone, remember Louis IV of France with his heels, stockings and long wig or the American Indian chiefs with their headdresses or peacocks with their imposing tail. Masculinity traits have so much changed!
Writing was born as the maidservant of human consciousness, but is increasingly becoming its master.
P.S. The book author, Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian, teaching history at the Hebrew Univeristy of Jerusalem. He (yes, he) married his husband in Toronto Canada, 15 years ago, he is a vegan and does not have a smartphone. In 2015, Sapiens was elected by Mark Zuckerberg for his online book club.