The Feasting Theory – Part 3 – The Origin of Agriculture


Not only does feasting explain the rise of hierarchy in various cultures, it also provides a good narrative about how domestication came to replace big game hunting and foraging as humans primary survival strategy.

1. What is domestication?

It might be helpful to briefly consider what domestication is. Simply put, everything that helps a plant or animal survive in the wild tends to disappear, which is how we can tell them apart from their wild counterparts (the ones which aren’t extinct, anyway). Characteristics that would be ‘disadvantageous’ to survival, but ‘advantageous’ to humans, can only survive with active human intervention. This is how archeologists can tell from the archaeological record that certain plants and animals are being subject to artificial selection by humans, rather than just being gathered or hunted from the wild.

For example, the things that help a grass propagate its seeds are reversed in domestication: the seeds are heavier, and they are more resistant to “shattering”— breaking off the stalk. Naturally, when a grass tends to ripen, it wants to spread its seeds far and wide. These mutations would harm any plant trying to survive in the wild, but from the human standpoint they are highly desirable. Similarly, animals become smaller, weaker and more docile as a result of artificial selection, because such animals are easier to manage. In the wild, it’s doubtful that such genes would propagate of their own accord. So archaeologists look for the telltale signs to determine the origin of domestication—plumper seeds, tougher rachis (the part that holds the seeds onto the stalk), and smaller bones in the case of animals. The pattern of bones is also a clue – herders tend to slaughter males disproportionately and keep the females for breeding (and later, milking).

Other changes took place as well. Grass seeds tend to require certain stimuli, such as light or heat in order to germinate, to ensure that they only sprout under favorable conditions. If they do not find these conditions they will go dormant. This was bad for farmers, however, who want seeds to germinate immediately after sewing during planting season. The seeds which grew right away were favored, so seeds which suppressed dormancy were propagated, and seeds that went dormant were not. Similarly, seeds tend to germinate and ripen at different times of the year as a survival mechanism, but farmers want to sew and harvest all the seeds all at the same time. This favored a reduction of variation in the growing time window. This was bad from the plant’s point of view, since an entire crop could fail if conditions were not right.  But it is much more convenient for human growers. Another end result is that genetic diversity as drastically reduced, another telltale difference between domesticated and wild varieties of both plants and animals.

After you collect wheat, you have to thresh it, which is separating the wheat from the chaff. Chaff is a dry husk, or hull surrounding the grain that needs to be removed during processing. This is accomplished by milling or pounding. The grains are then tossed into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to blow away (called winnowing). Some seeds have a mutation which caused the chaff to separate more easily, making the wheat easier to process. After threshing, seeds with the chaff still attached would have been discarded, propagating the mutation for the “self threshing” variety.

An Edibale History of Humanity by Tom Standage, Chapter One: The Invention of Farming (Washington Post)

Due to this intense selection pressure, cereal grains became domesticated over the course of as little as 200 years. A similar process took place for all sorts of vegetables— the ones which had traits most convenient for human farmers became propagated by them causing genetic changes which resulted in domesticated cereals, legumes, pulses, sedges, fruits, and so forth. Due to these mutations, such plants became utterly dependent upon us to propagate them. In essence, domesticated plants and animals became a co-dependent species with us–we are now the “vehicle” they use to propagate themselves. Take away humans and these mutant varieties would quickly go extinct. A vast field of wheat or corn could never exist in nature; it can only be sustained by human activity.

What this means is that not only did we domesticate wheat, but wheat domesticated us. And by doing so, these cereal grains made themselves the most “successful” plant species on the planet. Humanity’s staple crops – wheat, rice, and maize – are grown all over the world in millions of tons. We have wiped out entire ecosystems with the plow and planted monocrops of grains that are useful to us in their place. We have altered the face of the planet to suit one particular species—us. What this also means is that there are less and less resources for other animals, leading to mass extinctions. It is worth noting that mass extinction is what kicked off this cycle in the first place.

Evidence from the bones and teeth of ancient skeletons shows that more and more of the diet was proved by these cereal grains over time. Their diets are higher in carbohydrates than hunter gathers, indicating a shift to more plant foods and less meat. The natural sugars in grains also cause teeth to rot. Neolithic skeletons show signs of repetitive labor, arthritis, inflammation, dental caries–a whole host of ailments. It’s clear that grass seeds, probably harvested initially for beer brewing, eventually became the primary food source for a growing population of low-status individuals.

Wheat, it turns out, is a terrible thing to base a human diet around. These plants produce a number of semi-toxic “anti-nutrients” in their seeds to discourage them from being eaten by predators, as Mark Sisson explains:

Living things generally do not want to be consumed by other living things. Being digested, for the most part, tends to interrupt survival, procreation, propagation of the species – you know, standard stuff that fauna and flora consider pretty important. To avoid said consumption, living things employ various self defense mechanisms…Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates…

Lectins…bind to insulin receptors, attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of obesity”…

Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten. In celiacs, any gluten in the diet can be disastrous… compromised calcium and vitamin D3 levels, hyperparathyroidism, bone defects…

Phytates…make minerals bio-unavailable, thus rendering null and void the last, remaining argument for cereal grain consumption.

…Is there a good reason for anyone (with access to meat, fruit, and vegetables, that is) to rely on cereal grains for a significant portion of their caloric intake? The answer is unequivocally, undeniably no. We do not need grains to survive, let alone thrive. In fact, they are naturally selected to ward off pests, whether they be insects or hominids. I suggest we take the hint and stop eating them.

Also, the protein in grains is incomplete. A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids. These amino acids are used to construct proteins that the body needs to build healthy bones, skin, hair, muscles, etc. Animal-based proteins (from meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, etc.) are complete proteins. Vegetable based proteins from beans, grains, legumes and vegetables are not (except for soy and quinoa).

Incomplete proteins can be combined with other incomplete proteins to form complete proteins–beans and rice, for example. However, if one does not have this proper mix of complimentary foods, or enough meat, getting only incomplete proteins impairs health and the body’s ability to grow and repair itself naturally. This leads to the phenomenon of malnourished grain farmers.

Grain also does not have enough essential vitamins on its own. Essential vitamins that the body cannot produce internally need to be consumed in the diet to remain healthy, mainly through plant foods. One common example is vitamin C. Humans, unlike most animals, cannot produce vitamin C in their livers, indicating that we probably got enough of it in our ancestral diet. If we do not get enough vitamin C, we get a disease called scurvy, with all sort of health problems including hair and teeth falling out. Other vitamins need to be consumed through plant foods as well – vitamins A, B-complex, K, etc.

As populations increased, the masses increasingly had to rely on cheap grains to keep them alive. As farmers increasingly focused on grains, they had to get other sources of nutrition from elsewhere if they could. Such farmers often lacked access to sufficient meat or vegetables. The food producing class increasingly became dependent upon grains, and hence became increasingly malnourished. “Man cannot live by bread alone” as the Bible says, and it is very true.

As grains formed a greater and greater part of the human diet in these parts of the world, we see a dramatic decline in health. This is most directly observed in the skeletons. Basically, as we made more and more people, grains were the only food source abundant enough to feed the large masses  of people. What began as a supplementary food source became the only thing that kept most people alive, as it still is today.

2. The Rise of Agriculture

It’s been known by anthropologists since at least the 1960’s that the transition to agriculture was profoundly detrimental to overall human health and well-being. Rather than an improvement as formerly thought, they discovered that it led to worse health, more work, more crowding, more conflict, and the spread of contagious diseases. Higher populations caused greater competition for limited resources, and hence engendered increasing warfare and interpersonal violence (and the need for specialists in violence to control both). Mark Nathan Cohen writes in “The Food Crisis in Prehistory:”

“If agriculture provided neither better diet, nor greater dietary reliability, nor greater ease in the food quest; if it did not of itself confer the capability of sedentism, but conversely provided a poorer diet, less reliably, at equal or greater labor costs; why did anyone become a farmer? According to Lee (1968), Bushmen, who like other contemporary hunting and gathering groups know all about planting seeds, argue that this would be foolish since there is so much wild food available to harvest.” p. 39

It’s also plagued by an intractable chicken-and-egg problem. It used to be thought that runaway population growth caused the need to intensify food production and thus led to the creation of settled agriculture. But this leads to an obvious contradiction, since agriculture is what causes runaway population growth in the first place! Besides, hunters-and-gatherers managed to maintain their population under the resource base for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions if we consider prehuman ancestors. Many hunters-and-gatherers still do so today. Why would population suddenly race ahead of the food supply?

Most previous theories concerning the rise of settled agriculture centered around two major themes:

1.) Overpopulation. This has been a common theme: that the increasing population pressure drove an intensification of previously unknown or little-used techniques into full-blown agriculture, and with the growing populations that resulted, hunting and gathering was no longer a viable way of life. As agriculture scaled up into expansionist agrarian empires, they just displaced all other modes of life. This thesis was argued by Mark Nathan Cohen. He writes: “…population growth and population pressure are essentially ubiquitous in the archaeological record and can readily be perceived as leading to economic and technological growth culminating in the origins of agriculture.”

The problem with this is the above question. Why, after countless millennia of successful foraging lifestyles would this suddenly be abandoned? What would account for such explosive population growth, especially as the large megafauna were disappearing?

2.) Climate. The climate argument has become increasingly common in recent times. This theory was first proposed by V. Gordon Childe in his “Oasis Theory.” He argued that as the climate became cooler and drier, population centers concentrated near available water supplies, and the subsequent density, combined with the abundance of wild cereals growing near water, led to experiments in cultivation.

Childe coined the term “Fertile Crescent” to describe this geographical area. Later, Robert Braidwood made a similar argument, instead looking to the “Hilly Flanks” of the Zagros Mountains as the origin of domestication. Others argued that the stable and wet climate of the incoming Holocene era at the end of the Ice Age simply made agriculture a viable possibility for the first time; in other words, we were always going to do agriculture, it’s just that the climate was too unstable for it to be a viable replacement for hunting and gathering before the Holocene.

Lately, climate research has focused specifically on a period called the Younger Dryas, during which societies all over the world appear to have independently made the the switch to permanent settlements and domesticated cereal grain cultivation. This was a period of a much cooler and drier climate conditions around the world from about 11,500 – 9,500 B.C. It is thought that this period of climatic stress coming after the abundance of the warm centuries caused people to take up agriculture to cope with shortages resulting from the deteriorating climate conditions.

The Younger Dryas climate anomaly was thought to have been caused by the rapid collapse of the Laurentide Ice Sheet spilling water into the North Atlantic and shutting down the thermohaline circulation that warms Northern Europe and Western Asia. More recent research has pointed to a comet impact as the primary cause.

Hayden disagrees with both of these these as causes. Instead, he claims it was abundance, not scarcity, that allowed for the experimental behaviors that led to full-time settled agriculture. A period of climatic change and food stress would be the worst possible time to transition to a highly experimental, unreliable, and highly variable source of food such as cultivation of grains, he argues. Rather, people would most likely fall back to a lower level of population in such a situation.

“The most common explanations for the social changes emerging from domestication involve chains of causality in which environmental and population pressures led to crises that forced people to adopt cultivation and participate in complex societies, which then enabled specialization and technological advances, empowering these groups to dominate others. However, the high risks, lower returns, and nutritional disadvantages of cultivation do not seem to support exclusively subsistence-oriented explanations of domestication. Moreover, a link between population pressure and domestication or cultivation is far from certain. The assertion that sedentism produces complex societies is also problematic, since some hunter-gatherers became sedentary without developing social complexity, and conversely, there are highly mobile societies, such as pastoral nomads, that have developed chiefdoms and even empires.”

The feasting model solves several of the above problems. It solves the chicken-and-egg conundrum by proposing that human social behaviors led to the production of reliable surpluses first, with population growth resulting thereby. The need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasting led to intensification, not some sort of pressing environmental need. T. Douglas Price writes:

But what caused the adoption of agriculture? Population, climate change, and circumscription are impossible to indict as immediate causes of change. More people per se do not dictate the adoption of agriculture; how are mouths to feed directly translated into the cropping of hard-grained cereals? The consequences and conditions…suggest that human populations were pulled into the adoption of farming rather than pushed. Answers to such questions about the transition to agriculture clearly have more to do with internal social relations than with external events involving climate and the growth of human population. (FSI: 144)

In an examination of the origins of agriculture Barbara Bender argued that “the enquiry into agricultural origins is not, therefore, about intensification per se, not about increased productivity, but about increased production and about why increased demands are made on the economy.” Bender pointed out that food production was a question of commitment and social relations, about alliance structures and the individuals operating within such structures, not about technology or demography. Bender was among the first to point out that leadership, alliance, and exchange gave rise to a need for surplus production. (FSE: 145)

The people who occupied the Levantine corridor and Near East during the early Holocene are referred to as Natufians by archaeologists, after a cave where their settlements were discovered. The time period immediately prior to the Neolithic is called the Late Paleolithic, or the Epipaleolithic. Hayden et. al. make the case that the inhabitants of the Levant in the Natufian period were very similar to the complex foragers of the West Coast areas of North America:

All of these indications of feasting (large hearths, surpluses, dense faunal remains, high cost serving and processing vessels, prestige items, special locations) conform to what we know ethnographically about other complex  hunter-gatherers such as those in California, the North American Northwest Interior, and the Northwest Coast who characteristically engaged in feasting utilizing shells as feasting gifts for social and political purposes as well as sometimes serving valued foods in prestigiously carved bowls. While there may still be reluctance in some circles to use ethnographic parallels to interpret Paleolithic or Epipaleolithic contexts, the Natufian is often referred to as “the best known example of a complex hunter-gatherer society in southwest Asia.”

We are persuaded that the case is strong for viewing the major Late Epipaleolithic communities of the Near East as complex hunter/gatherers similar in fundamental ways to ethnographic groups in California and the Northwest Interior. To iterate, these similarities included: sometimes large community sizes, high population densities, seasonal or more pronounced degrees of sedentism, exploitation of rich resources, private ownership, wealth items, storage practices, burial practices, and socioeconomic differentiation at the transegalitarian (not chiefdom or stratified) level…the large sedentary Natufian communities communities are associated with “the development of exchange systems based on principles other than generalized reciprocity, non-kinship-based status distinctions, and the development of more complex organizational systems than typically occur under hunter-gatherers. [R.] Kelly concurs that increased sedentism implies a relatively rich resource base and storage, which would have loosened the cultural constraints on self-interested pursuits, allowed aggrandizing individuals to obtain benefits for themselves, and eventually develop inequalities.

All these effects are hallmarks of transegalitarian complex hunter-gatherers. Sharing networks could be expected to have become restricted, and economically based strategies for reproduction and survival would have become predominant, espcially the use of surpluses in feasts. Thus, it appears that in the Late Epipaleolithic, there were well-established contexts and motivations for producing surplus-demanding, labor intensive beverages like nut oils and brewed liquids.
(WWBiN: 137138 – emphasis in original)

First evidence of farming in Mideast 23,000 years ago (Science Daily)

Population boom preceded early farming (Science Daily)

This leads to the following observations:

• Rather than inequality being a result of agriculture, it was actually a cause. Transegalitarian societies even before the Neolithic Revolution already had levels of social stratification and hierarchy, as we’ve already seen. The need to repay elites during feasting events motivated people to work harder and to use intensified growing and breeding techniques that eventually gave rise  to fully-fledged domestication.

• Rather than agriculture leading to sedentism, sendentism leads to agriculture. Rather than a nomadic existence, complex foragers and horticulturalists had enough abundance to settle down in one place for long periods of time long before domestication. The abundance of wild plant foods  allowed people to settle down in the ancient Near East while still maintaining a primarily hunting/fishing and gathering lifestyle centered on figs, nuts, gazelle and seafood, supplemented with beans, seeds and legumes. For example, during the warming period, the Levantine corridor was a woodland covered with oak and pistachio forests, separated by grasslands where abundant herds of wild gazelles roamed.

• Rather than large-scale communal labor and occupational specialization being a result of agriculture, large amounts of cooperative labor for building feasting and religious complexes and other tasks would have been long present prior to the rise of agriculture, with feasting as a motivator for the summoning and command of labor pools, and the demand for prestige goods. Long-distance trading networks maintained by elites would have been present prior to agriculture.The discovery of Göbekli Tepe, a large stone monument built prior to domestication appears to confirm this idea. Clearly, a society which could construct such a structure was far more complex than autonomous groups of small foraging bands.

Remarkably, similar patterns of collective work and the role of feasting and psychological inducements as a means of compelling individuals to contribute their labor toward communal building projects may be discerned already at Göbekli Tepe, a monumental ceremonial center in south-eastern Turkey, which dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (10,000-8,000 B.C.),. The builders of this cultic center were disparate groups of hunter-gathers, who, over a period of many generations, were drawn periodically from a wide geographical area to participate in repeated construction work. As recently argued by Oliver Dietrich and his co-authors, a prerequisite for the long life of the ceremonial center and its complex symbolic system “must have been an extensive network of supra-regional contacts sustained on a regular basis. For the large amount of quarrying, stone-carving and construction work required to build a monumental sanctuary like Göbekli Tepe, there had to be a means of bringing together groups from different areas and organizing communal work. An answer on how this was achieved lies in the widespread evidence for extensive feasting, including the consumption of—most likely alcoholic—beverages, in the PPN archaeological record.” In view of the patently religious character of that center, it is virtually certain that the feasts that took place at Göbekli Tepe, and the various festive activities (such as dancing and musical performances) that undoubtedly were associated with them, has a “strong cultic significance.” Because of this, what motivated the builders of Göbekli Tepe to contribute their labor likely was not just the expectation of free food and drink. An equally (if not more) important motivation in that respect must have been the possibility of participating in Göbekli’s cultic rituals and, through that, of coming into direct contact with the divine world—or, in other words, of partaking in a profound religious experience. (LAW: 202-203)

In fact, many people posit an Anatolian origin for domestication. The earliest evidence of domesticated einkorn wheat is found there, close to the similar cultic structure of Nevalı Çori. Evidence also points to the domestication of grapes, goats and cattle in the same region.


Animal domestication is older than previously thought (Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog)

All this causes Hayden to argue that agriculture could only arise in conditions of abundance, rather than being an adaptation to declining resources or population pressure:

“The social competition model proposes that a wealth rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. In this scenario, a failure of food production for feasts could not affect basic subsistence, but success would provide important sociopolitical advantages. Neolithic domesticates are proposed, in part, to have been used as costly status symbols, helping to bring an end to egalitarianism largely via feasting.”

It was the need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasts, argues Hayden, that caused people to intensify their production of certain particularly palatable or desirable foodstuffs, and thus provided the real impetus for domestication of plants and animals.

“Since individuals were vying with each other to acquire mates or allies using surplus production, there could never be enough food produced. Lower-ranked individuals could always be expected to try to produce more in order to improve their chances of obtaining better allies or partners, no matter what the absolute level of production was…”

I expect the first evidence of domestication to appear in complex hunter gatherer societies organized at the Reciprocator the Near East, Cauvin has argued that domestication was not a function of ecological pressures, but of social changes. He notes, for example, that the bull became an important symbolic animal before it was domesticated. Both of these observations fit well with the model of feasting that is being proposed here since feasting is expected to develop under conditions of surplus and involve difficult-to-procure animals like bulls that could be used as symbols of bravery, power and prowess.

This is a new dimension of food demand and production that is simply lacking among egalitarian foragers. It first appears among the complex hunter-gatherers that emerged at the end of the Pleistocene, *prior* to the domestication of plants and animals…transegalitarian feasting based on the production of surpluses is a new, powerful force that relentlessly produces food production to its maximum limit under favorable technological and environmental conditions. Feasting and other characteristics of complex hunter-gatherers (increased sedentism, storage, socioeconomic inequalities, prestige goods) are well documented in the Natufian culture of the Near East and in the Jomon culture of Japan, while good cases can be made for similar developments in China, and northeastern North America.

I argue that domestication is not simply the ultimate end product of incremental population growth over the span of 2 million years, or of gradual improvements in human intelligence, or other cumulative changes. Rather, domestication was one element of a constellation of entirely new traits that emerged rather abruptly with the appearance of complex hunter-gatherers involving economically based competition and the conversion of economic surpluses into other desirable goods, debts, and services. Underlying all these developments were the new strategies adopted by transegalitarian societies to reduce risks involving subsistence, reproduction, and conflicts. The strategies with the most far-reaching consequences were storage and feasting, and under favorable conditions, these strategies repeatedly resulted in domestication in many places in the world in order to meet the inherently escalating demands for more staples and more prestige foods (and ordinary foods) used in feasts.

More recently, Hayden has argued that the need to throw competitive feasts would have led to the cultivation of certain favored foods, such as wild cereal grains. Cultivation of cereal grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, sorghum, maize) has always been linked with civilization. Yet, such foods are universally considered “unpalatable” by hunter gatherers; in other words, such foods were exploited on occasion, but only if there was nothing else available. Plus, they would have taken a lot more work to process. Why would hunter-gathers, facing extreme conditions, have gone through all the extra work necessary to procure foods that they by-and-large did not like to eat, rather than just reducing their numbers as they had always done in times past?

Hayden has endorsed the idea, advanced by many others, that cereal grains were first cultivated as a “luxury” food, and they would have been used primarily for brewing the alcoholic beverages, which were central to Neolithic feasting. This would explain why hunter-gatherers, who considered such foods unpalatable, would not have bothered much with them: the simply didn’t have the equipment or sedentism necessary to turn them into alcohol, unlike complex foragers:

…all experimental, ethnographic, and comparative observations…have tended to support an important role for grains in brewing for feasts. We thus endorse the earlier suggestions made by Sauer, Braidwood, Katz and Voigt, McGovern, and others to the effect that increasing demands for brewing beer was likely a major motivating factor for cultivating and domesticating cereals in the Near East. Similar arguments might also be advanced for breadmaking…We conclude that feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation….(WWBiN:142)

“… Epipaleolithic populations exploited and then cultivated cereals, not primarily for food but to brew alcohol for use in competitive feasting…. In this view, aggrandizing individuals used alcohol to attract people to feasts and then to manipulate them to acquire political power via reciprocal feasting debts. This ‘alcohol model’ when combined with feasting models explicitly addresses the co-occurrence of two key Neolithic phenomena – cereal agriculture and social inequality – and is supported by a range of archaeological and ethnographic data…”

Hayden has recently argued that foods that contained, or could be converted into, psychoactive substances, would have especially been the main focus of the competitive feasting menu for social reasons:

“Extensive archaeological evidence shows that a significant portion of the effort of early cultivators globally was probably directed to the production of psychoactive substances (PAS), including the use of cereals, poppies, coca, sugar cane, tobacco, and cannabis. We propose a model involving PAS in two phases of Neolithication. First, people were attracted to PAS, and accorded them prestige because of their rewarding, mood-altering properties. Second, as cultivation enabled PAS use to become widespread and regular, the power of PAS to influence social behavior helped to create and reinforce complex social structures by inducing acceptance of crowded conditions, heirarchical power, and regular, hard work for others.…feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation.”

Psychoactive substances (PAS) would have made living in the newly developing agricultural societies, with their long hours of toil, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, rigid laws, and hierarchy, more tolerable. Even today, we see the widespread use of alcohol to cope with living in dense, crowded, hierarchical, urbanized societies, and as a social lubricant allowing communication with unrelated strangers (“liquid courage”). We also see the widespread consumption of numerous “comfort foods” such as breads, cereals and sugars, essential components of today’s processed foods (and hence widespread obesity). Such foods also help to make “civilization” more tolerable.

A number of people have pointed out the connection between the widespread use of stimulants (tea, coffee, tobacco) and the early Industrial Revolution, particularly in regards to its brutally long working hours (alcohol consumption, interestingly, became suppressed for the first time). More recently, the use of opioids is epidemic, and cannabis is increasingly being used to take the edge off modern societies where social mobility is gone, working hours ever longer, and working conditions are ever more dull and alienating. In fact, we could argue that antidepressants are merely the latest continuation of this long-term trend: the development of psychoactive substances (PAS) to make living in the type of profoundly unnatural society which allows Tripe-A personalities to flourish tolerable for the rest of us:

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and they have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance. Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars.

Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them,”


Psychoactive substance use does not represent merely a problematic behavior indulged in by a minority; rather it is an important and routine shaper of behavior for the vast majority of post-Neolithic humans. Is this mere coincidence, or is there a causal link between widespread adoption of mood altering PAS and the emergence of Neolithic cultures? PAS induce pro-social behavior and conformity to social constraints, and reduce scalar, work, and status-related stress. Thus, PAS should promote tolerance of larger, more impersonal social structures and the behaviors required of individuals participating in them. They provide substitute rewards in the present that facilitate commitments to work for uncertain future rewards, and they are used to elicit appropriate emotional responses during work. Over the millennia, sociopolitical and economic organizers have promoted their use by workers.

Interestingly, the use of psychedelics appears to have been suppressed in hierarchical societies (as they still are). I speculate that the reason for this is because one way chiefs and high priests gained power was by claiming to be the representatives of the gods on earth, or being able to communicate with the ancestors. In traditional tribal cultures, this role is consigned to the shaman, often aided by various psychoactive substances. If such substances were widespread, they might allow “ordinary” people to commune with the gods and ancestors directly, undermining any supernatural claims to power on the part of the elites. This recourse to spiritual power has been used by leaders throughout history. Research indicates that the regular use of psychedelics causes personality changes that would be highly undesirable from the standpoint of elites (openness, resistance to authority, questioning belief systems, etc.), and thus they were suppressed in early civilizations, as they still are today.

Parenthetically, cereal cultivation wasn’t the first alteration of the environment to favor special foods. It appears that the earliest residents of the Near East during the Holocene may have been practicing “forest gardening” long before the cultivation of wild grasses. The earliest evidence of domestication actually comes not from grains, but from figs and broad beans:

Some Ancient Farmers Grew Fava Beans Before They Grew Grains (NPR)

Tamed 11,400 Years Ago, Figs Were Likely First Domesticated Crop (Science Daily)

3. The Younger Dryas

Most likely climate did indeed play a role in plant domestication. It was not to cope with a diminishing food supply, however. Rather, it was to maintain access to the favored foods for feasting in the face of changing climatic conditions. The fact that climate played a role is attested to by the fact that the transition to agriculture occurred more-or-less simultaneously all across the world during the Younger Dryas, which would be difficult to explain with just “cultural” explanations:

The most striking fact about early agriculture, however, is precisely that it is such a universal event. Slightly more than 10,000 years ago, virtually all men lived on wild foods. By 2,000 years ago the overwhelming majority of people lived on farming. In the four million year history of Homo sapiens, the spread of agriculture was accomplished in about 8,000 years. As Charles Reed pointed out at a recent symposium on agricultural origins, the problem is not just to account for the beginnings of agriculture, but to account for the fact that so many human populations made this economic transition in so short a time.(FCP: 5-6)

To understand how this may have happened, we need to consult the work of the Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov.

Vavilov traveled the world to find the places where cultivated plants had their greatest natural genetic diversity. He discovered eight major “centers of domestication” around the world. During times of warmer, wetter, climates, the plants in these areas would expand their range, only to contract during periods of cooler, drier weather. Spencer Wells explains this phenomenon in his book Pandora’s Seed:

In his extraordinarily influential work on domesticated plants, [Nikolai] Vavilov described many primary centers of plant domestication. One was the Fertile Crescent…other major centers were in China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes of South America. A wide range of places, but all are similar in one way: they are all mountainous regions.

Why not coastal areas or prairies? Primarily because mountains serve as so-called refugia of biological diversity–places where species continue to thrive when the surrounding plains are too dry to sustain them, due to climatic shifts such as those that have occurred frequently throughout the past few million years. Because mountains draw more rainfall, they serve as relatively safe havens in times of climatic stress, so they are the places where genetic diversity is typically the highest. And high genetic diversity allows for the development of advantageous traits that can be selected for by humans, including seed retention and other characteristics that suit species use as food crops.

Humans can’t live easily in high mountains–we tend to prefer lowlands for climatic reasons–but plants advance and retreat, “breathing” in and out of the lowlands during wetter and drier phases. This provides us our first clue as to why domestication happened in all of these places at the same time.

Mesoamerica, for instance, has given us many crops that are indispensable components for the modern diet: corn tomatoes, beans, chiles, chocolate, vanilla, squash, pineapples, avocados, and pumpkins. Many were domesticated in the region of present-day Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, which has a rugged, mountainous terrain that has served to fragment human populations, resulting in a tremendous amount of cultural and linguistic diversity to match its biological horn of plenty. Corn is far and way the most important Oaxacan crop, and evidence shows that it has been cultivated since around 10,000 years ago. There is some debate about corn’s botanical ancestor–its closest wild relative, teosinte, is so different in form that many scientists find it difficult to believe that one developed from the other–but not about its geographical origin.

…Similarly, rice seems to have been domesticated first in the mountains of southern China and northern India, where its wild ancestor Oryza rufipogon still grows. …hunter-gatherers living on the Yangtze River in central China were eating rice around 13,000 years ago. With the onset of the Younger Dryas and the cooler temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, however, the rice phytoliths disappear from the archaeological record, reappearing only around 11,000 years ago, when warmer and wetter conditions returned–and judging from changes in the phytoliths, these appear to have been cultivated. It seems that during the Younger Dryas the rice retreated back to a more hospitable environment, and humans–as in the Middle East and the mountain valleys of Oaxaca–were forced to start planting it to keep the grain in their diet.

Thus, in the centers of domestication for the three main crops around the world, we see a similar interaction between hunter-gatherers and their local grains. Intensive foraging at the end of the last ice age, coupled with warmer, wetter conditions, led to specialized gathering of particular plant species and an increase in population. The onset of the Younger Dryas created a crisis in food supply, which forced these sedentary foragers to start cultivating grains that had previously been plentiful in the wild. The combination of a demographic expansion followed by a climatic stress probably explains why we see the development of agriculture independently at the same time around the world. Cultivating food allowed these populations to survive the cold snap of the Younger Dryas, and when favorable conditions returned, agriculture was ready to take off. All that was needed was one final step: domestication. (PS: 42-46)

The only part missing from Dr. Wells’ account above is that the ultimate reason for the harvesting of these plants was to maintain and expand the Neolithic feasting complex, especially to procure the plants required to produce psychoactive substances desired for such feasts.:

“Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,” Hayden explained. “Feasts are reciprocal — if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.”

“In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present,” he said. “One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it’s produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts.”

The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Hayden said circumstantial evidence for brewing has been seen in the Natufian, in that all the technology needed to make it is there — cultivated yeast, grindstones, vessels for brewing and fire-cracked rocks as signs of the heating needed to prepare the mash.

“We still don’t have the smoking gun for brewing in the Natufian, with beer residues in the bottom of stone cups or anything like that,” Hayden said. “But hopefully people will start looking for that — people haven’t yet.”

Beer Lubricated the Rise of Civilization, Study Suggests (Live Science)

So what happened may have been a scenario something like this:

• The onset of the Holocene causes a “broad spectrum revolution” of abundant wild plant foods, centered around the eight “founder crops” in the ancient Near East, and different grains elsewhere (millet, rice, maize, sorghum, etc.).

• The landbase was rich enough to tolerate the much more intensive cultivation of these crops, leading to sedentism, and then, to feasting. Long-term storable surpluses kick off the conditions for the Neolithic feasting complex. Ritual centers begin to be constructed.

• Triple-A personalities start to throw giant feasts to gain power and prestige. The need to participate in these feasts causes the founder crops, and others, to be more intensively harvested and probably cultivated in garden plots, in order to pay back the loans of the aggrandizers and remain in the feasting circle. At first meat is still obtained primarily through hunting, fishing and trapping. Such early “abundance” attracts more and more followers. Psychoactive and addictive substances are cultivated to provide the impetus for participation in this work-intensive, highly unnatural lifestyle. The people who refused to go along with this are, by and large, not our ancestors.

• This snowball accelerated for a few thousand years, until the changing climatic conditions of the Younger Dryas caused the desirable plants to “retreat” back to their mountain refugia. The oak and pistachio forests disappear, along with the wild gazelle herds. Many villages are abandoned.

• In order to keep the feasting complex going, aggrandizers in the Levant and elsewhere convince people to adopt intensive cultivation methods of wild plant crops leading to domestication, and hence, agriculture. To cope with the disappearance of wild animal herds, they began to “manage” certain favored herds, protecting them and periodically culling them. This eventually leads to domestication, first of wild sheep and goats, and then later of cattle, pigs, and other animals.

• By the time the 1,200 year Younger Dryas period ends, locations all over the world had switched over from wild collection of plant foods and hunting to intensive growing of cereals and animal husbandry as their primary mode of production, never to look back. Crops were now dependent on human labor, rather than natural conditions, and people had now committed themselves to a life of unremitting hard work and toil (“by the sweat of they brow…”). With the return of warmer and more hospitable conditions after the Younger Dryas period, cultivation takes off big-time.

About a thousand years into the Holocene there was a veritable explosion in agricultural settlement throughout South-West Asia and beyond to the west and east. Communities based on mixed farming can now be identified from Cyprus, south-central Anatolia, and the Levant eastwards across the Zagros and possibly into the Iranian plateau as well…the principle new characteristic in the composition of these settlements was the construction of substantial square or rectangular dwellings, often with stone foundations and walls made of either tauf or pise (mud on a withy frame, baked in the sun) or mud-brick…the floors were often plastered with a mortar made by mixing burnt and pounded limestone with water, especially of buildings that seem likely to have been of higher status. Storage pits, silos, and hearths are common, invariably within the house. It seems certain that the household was now the primary unit of production and consumption. (ARP: 137-138)

• Cultures that switched over to the new lifestyle and “worked harder,” had many more offspring, who took over more and more land, displacing hunter-gathers and others who “ran away” from the oppressive, overcrowded conditions of incipient civilization. Hunter-gathers ended up occupying the marginal areas unsuitable for crops and animal husbandry. Workaholism genes propagate through the population, and aggrandiers become more and more reproductively successful. We know that sometime after the introduction of agriculture, only one man reproduced for every 17 women.

• Population growth explodes, and the natural environment is degraded, preventing any return to the easier, more genial conditions of hunting and gathering. Cultures all over the world incorporate a lost “golden age” into their mythology, when life was simpler and better for the average person.

• The “Neolithic Garden Cultures” eventually settle in the great river valleys of the world— the Nile River Valley, Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley. They abandon shifting cultivation and begin to grow domesticated crops year-round, thanks to the alluvial soil deposits caused by annual flooding. “Mixed” farming of plants and animals emerges. Population density explodes. To control floods and expand the water supply, they construct vast canal systems and embankments. This sets the stage for civilization, states, empires, and for onset of recorded history. This process also occurs separately in the Americas on a somewhat later timeline.

• And intensification just keeps going, ushering the Malthusian feedback loop, which pretty much explains all of human history up until the last couple of hundred years or so:

…the adoption of food production exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process—one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started. A gradual rise in population densities impelled people to obtain more food, by rewarding those who unconsciously took steps toward producing it. Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.

Taken together, these… factors help us understand why the transition to food production in the Fertile Crescent began around 8500 B.C., not around 18,500 or 28,500 B.C. At the latter two dates hunting-gathering was still much more rewarding than incipient food production, because wild mammals were still abundant; wild cereals were not yet abundant; people had not yet developed the inventions necessary for collecting, processing, and storing cereals efficiently; and human population densities were not yet high enough for a large premium to be placed on extracting more calories per acre. (GGS: 111-112)

How did domesticated agriculture contribute to incipient state formation? That’s what we’ll be talking about next time.

PS: Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed

GGS: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

ARP: Graeme Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory

WWBiN: Brain Hayden, Neil Canuel & Jennifer Shanse, What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic. The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2013.

FCP: Mark Nathan Cohen, The Food Crisis in Prehistory.

LIW: Labor in the Ancient World. Edited by Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson.

8 thoughts on “The Feasting Theory – Part 3 – The Origin of Agriculture

  1. I don’t see any major problems with the feasting theory (social/cultural evolution is a major and under appreciated part of the human story) or changes triggered by the Younger Dryas, but there are other factors being left out of this explanation. There is new research (which I have posted here before) that is not included in your piece and their theory. Why is it that so many of these scientists keep looking for and often proclaiming single cause theories? Our world is gray and complex and theirs was too. For me it looks like there were a number of reasons contributing to the advent of agriculture and I don’t think anyone can speak with total certainty on it.

    According to the study below the megafauna extinction ended right around the time of agriculture got underway. Just a coincidence that agriculture happened at the same time as a major food source went extinct?

    Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals
    Early humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of a variety of species of giant beasts, new research has revealed.

    “Known collectively as megafauna, most of the largest mammals ever to roam the earth were wiped out over the last 80,000 years, and were all extinct by 10,000 years ago.”

    “He said cutting-edge statistical analysis had helped solve the mystery almost beyond dispute, concluding that man was the dominant force in wiping out the creatures, although climate change could also have played a lesser role.”

    • I don’t think any anthropologists would claim their theory is a “single cause.” My guess is Hayden would say (not that I can speak for him in any way) that feasting is one competent of increasing cultural complexity, but hardly the only one. I’m sure he would agree with the fact that there are gray areas and events are multi-causal.

      I did connect the extinction of the Megafauna with the increased turn to plant foods in the text. I think that is generally acknowledged.

  2. Quite the tour de force, thank you chilke! You have an amazing ability to distill large amounts of data into readable format. I agree with virtually all of it. (Pace, apneaman. above, re extinction of large beasts, this is pretty controversial, and at least in Australia had nothing to do with the transition to intensifying agriculture, which never did happen on that continent.)

    My only bits of dissonance are as follows:
    1) Psychoactive substances were not so much suppressed as controlled in very early civilizations, and used for rewards. For example, in Caral (Peru) the promise of these substances drew large ceremonial center work parties that ended with big bashes including alcohol, amazonian hallucinogens, and coca. They are still controlled today, making their access more difficult than would otherwise be the case, resulting in intemperate profits, and fears of losing access resulting in one’s inability of medicating civilization’s stresses. A potent tool of social control and wealth creation for the few.

    2) The timeline. Whatever little evidence there is for intensified cultivation of plants before the Younger Dryas disappears during Younger Dryas, last I checked. There is evidence that the Natufians went back to being dispersed hunter gatherers during this time, not that they doubled down and grew more intensively. This goes along with the logic: intensification goes hand in hand with abundance. Younger Dryas was impoverishment. It lasted from about 13,500 ya to about 11,900 ya. Holocene began when the cold of the Younger Dryas receded. Only then did the conditions for growing things improve. (There seems to be evidence that efforts at domesticating animals preceded plant domestication by a long shot. Possibly, dogs around 33,000 ya, horses around 15,000 ya, pigs 13,000 ya, and sheep and goats 12,000 ya; again, these efforts are also thought to be linked to prestige and ritual).

    If there is any evidence that “people were forced to plant rice” or anything else during the Younger Dryas, I would love to see it. It seems conceivable there would be a few spots where the grasses retreated and still flourished, and in those refugia the cultivation experimentation may have continued. I just have never seen evidence for that.

    • 1. So the hallucinogens were controlled and dispensed by elites, rather than suppressed. That actually hews to what Hayden is saying–drugs as a motivator. There is all sorts of mushroom cap symbolism at Gobeckli Tepe; maybe the shamans were using them there? I’m thinking more of Christian Europe and their suppression of “pagan” religions (e.g. witchcraft, which used hallucinogens).

      2. Here I’m basing on Colin Tudge’s idea that humans were practicing what he calls “proto-agriculture,” and this may have allowed humans to outlast the Neanderthals in Europe. He points out that Pygmies will take up goat herding and gardening during periods of climatic stress, and then return to hunting and gathering when conditions improve. So, harsher conditions mean less wild foods, and less animals for hunting, hence more effort put into domesticated plants and animals. After the YD, suddenly agricultural villages spring up all over the place, which would be hard to reconcile with cultivation being abandoned due to climatic stress. Hayden writes:

      “…the Younger Dryas does not seem to have had the extreme adverse impact on Natufian subsistence and society that many authors impute (Balter 2007:1835). Weinstein-Evron (2009: 112) disputes that there was any significant impact of the Younger Dryas in the core area of the Natufian. In fact, Natufian groups flourished and expanded during this time into rich Euphrates environments like Abu Hureya which, as Maher et al. (2011:21) note, would be a curiosity under hardship conditions. Similarly, Nesbitt (2002: 124) and Watkins (2010: 108) argue that the Younger Dryas played no role in cereal domestication. Wilcox (2005, 2005, 2007, Wilcox et al. 2009) notes that cereal grains actually appear to have increased during the Younger Dryas in continental areas of the Fertile Crescent, while the major nut-bearing trees were constant features of these landscapes before, during, and after the Younger Dryas. Wright (1994: 253) concluded that the use of cereals did not result from nutritional or climatic stresses. More recently, Maher et al. (2011) have argued that the effects of the Younger Dryas varied widely from place to place in the Mideast, especially with altitude, and that there was no significant impact of this climate change on the cultures of the Near East. If there was any adverse effect if cooler temperatures, it may have made highly valued food items like cereals somewhat more difficult to obtain in certain areas…”

      But the way I see it, you have to bring climate into it in some way, because why else would the Neolithic Revolution take place in all these independent locations during this time period, a period that coincidentally coincides with a major climatic shift?

      • The ‘independent locations’ thing is fascinating (that first map!); I wasn’t aware of it. The options are either similar responses to a global event or cultural exchange between these far-flung populations. But we live in an age where convergent evolution (for want of a better phrase) or prehistoric global travel make the mind boggle. It’s the kind of thing that gives people strange ideas about pyramids 🙂

        • Not all that mysterious. When Big Man societies really got going and transformed into chiefly social structures, they invested, among other things, in massive structures for propaganda purposes. And of all massive structures that last, and are easy to construct if you have large labor pools, the pyramid seems a pretty obvious choice.

      • Absolutely you bring the climate into it. Without greater warmth and moisture (and increasing CO2), steadily intensifying ag would not have been possible in most places…

        Colin Tudge is right: protoagriculture is as old as sapiens. But what we refer to as “agricultural revolution” (= intensification of cultivation visible in archeological record) began much more recently.

        As for the use of cereals in the YD, of course they utilized cereals. It’s just they were all wild. Even in the early days of Catal Huyuk, they were still all wild. And that’s some 3,000 years after the end of YD.

      • And one more thing: you said, “After the YD, suddenly agricultural villages spring up all over the place, which would be hard to reconcile with cultivation being abandoned due to climatic stress.”

        Actually, they don’t. The first agricultural village I was able to trace was in Egypt, some 7,000 ya. After YD, you have more sedentism, and animals gradually domesticated for food, but it was much slower with plants. Some have claimed domesticated rye in the Natufian, before YD. But that evidence has remained very dubious — only 6 fat rye seeds. I imagine that in the latter days of Catal, they may find domesticated plants there. So that would put it at about 8,000 ya. Interesting to note that the genetic shift where a few males fathered most of the descendants occurred at around 8 kya as well.

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