In Chinese mythology, humanity was on the verge of extinction after a great flood, and they no longer found animals to hunt. The goddess Guan Yin took pity on the humans and let the milk from their breasts fall on some plants, which began to give grains of rice. On the other side of the world, the Incas believed that in the beginning people lived like animals until Inti, the sun god, sent his children, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo (who were also a couple), to teach them how to cultivate corn and potatoes in the Cuzco valley.
They are not the only agricultural cosmologies. For the Sumer civilization, in present-day Iraq, the sky god Anu, after creating the universe, forgot to provide food for humans, who fed on grass and water. So he created the gods of crops and livestock, but in exchange for these gifts, people acquired the obligation to produce large quantities of food, in order to give the insatiable gods a share as an offering.
In Biblical Genesis these myths take on a much darker tint. Adam and Eve lived naked and in harmony with nature, which provided them with everything they needed. Everything changes when they offend God with idolatry? Blasphemy? Evil? Nothing of that. Original sin is knowledge. The forbidden fruit brought them out of innocence and from the nudist garden in which they lived, and they were condemned to work from dawn to dusk to earn bread (yes, bread) with the sweat of their brow.
The similarity between these myths and legends speak of a convulsive part of the history of our species, a singular event that left a very deep mark. At different times and places on the planet, humans gradually ceased to be nomadic hunter-gatherers and became tied to one place, planting seeds in the ground and patiently waiting for them to germinate, storing the grain to survive in winter and domesticating animals . The end result was greater food security. In exchange, we lost paradise.
The earliest remains that testify to the collection of wild wheat and barley have been found by the Sea of Galilee and date back 23,000 years. The first known permanent settlements are from the Nantufian culture, 14,000 years ago, in the current West Bank. Not far away, the first scattered evidence of cereal cultivation was discovered 10,700 years ago. Thereafter, the cultivated area and human population multiply rapidly.
But change is not limited to the fertile valleys of the Middle East. Agriculture appears in different places and times without connection to each other, and with different cereals as protagonists. In China, rice begins to be cultivated around 7,500 BC, while indications of corn cultivation in South America date back to 3,500 BC (before the common era).
Humans have been anatomically accurate to us for 150,000 years. Why did the change happen so recently and not before? And, above all, why did it happen? The traditional explanation is that agriculture and livestock offered higher yields and, therefore, better chances of survival. But recent studies have proven that this was not the case.
Although there was an increase in population, the first farmers were smaller and in poorer health than hunter-gatherers, as well as dental problems that indicated malnutrition. Present-day Greeks and Turks have yet to regain the stature of their Paleolithic ancestors. Furthermore, the biblical curse on bread and sweat from the forehead is literal: agriculture produces more yield per hectare, but not per hour worked. The hunter-gatherers that still exist today, such as the Kung or Hadza Bushmen, need to work only about ten hours a week. At least at first, the move to agriculture was bad business.
Humans unknowingly became genetic engineers. In wild cereals the grains are small and fall off when ripe, which makes them unusable for consumption, while in domesticated varieties they are much larger, they remain attached to the stem and it is necessary to mechanically separate them. These changes and others were produced by humans, who chose these specimens to facilitate collection and storage, helping them to spread. As an example, next to its wild ancestor, maize domesticated for millennia is a monster, a mutant unable to reproduce on its own. The same goes for wheat or rice.
Was it because of climate change?
According to current calculations, this artificial selection process takes only 200 years to complete, and lead to varieties with sufficient yield. However, the transition to agriculture lasted for millennia. The most plausible explanation is that more than a technological change, the evolution towards agriculture was social and economic.
One of the main factors could have been climate change. The recent Dryas glacial period, which started 12,700 years ago and lasted more than a thousand years, would have made agriculture an acceptable option before starving to death from the cold, but this explanation does not give all the keys. Another factor is sedentary lifestyle. Human groups that found a place with abundant food and water, such as on the banks of a river, did not have as much need to move, and the adoption of the culture became more likely.
A theory that takes strength is the discovery of alcohol. Several theorists insist that beer production was the real reason for this transition. Until recently there was not much evidence about it, but the discovery of remains of a winery from 13,000 years ago in present-day Israel leaves little doubt. Two millennia before the crops arrived, someone was brewing beer by fermenting wheat and barley.
The data suggests that farmers and ranchers lived with hunter-gatherers for centuries, and there was a constant flow between both ways of life that can still be observed in groups such as the Khoisan, on the African continent. The San were hunter-gatherers and the Khoikhoi were farmers and ranchers. Two millennia ago they found themselves competing for the same territory. Their popping language and analysis of their genes indicate that the San were not displaced and eliminated, but that both groups mixed to make up the current Khoisan ethnic group.
At some point in our history, agriculture became a trap. By eliminating nomadism, farmers were able to have more children, which they also needed as labor to grow. But that did not stop them from continuing to exploit the natural resources of hunting and wild plants around them, putting pressure on the populations of hunter-gatherers who would have no choice but to migrate or assimilate to the new practices. Gradually, as the dependence on crops for subsistence increased, populations reached a point of no return.
Caries and atherosclerosis
Anthropologist Jared Diamond speaks of the move to agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of humanity.” Simple paleolithic hunter-gatherers had time for art, as cave paintings attest, an unattainable luxury for a peasant. Food rich in carbohydrates brought cavities and atherosclerosis.
From consuming hundreds of different species of plants and animals, it went to a few dozen, impoverishing our intestinal flora and leading to deficiencies in proteins, vitamins and minerals. An egalitarian society based on cooperation and the distribution of resources was replaced by private property, the oppression of women, the accumulation of wealth and war.
Without the discovery of bread we would never have made it to the Moon, but in the process our species paid a heavy price. Today more people on the planet die from overweight than from hunger. In our collective memory, paradise is still lost.