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The Agricultural Revolution: How Humans Shifted from Foraging to Farming-- the beginnings of Civilization

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Broadcast 4/6/2016 at 04:36:30
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I interview Graeme Barker Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Professorial Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge University, England. He is the author of the book, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did foragers become farmers. and has written extensively about humanity's transition from forager/hunter/gatherer to farmer.

He describes his interests as, and I quote:

How have past human societies and the environments they inhabited constructed and transformed each other? And can understanding these past relationships help inform the present and the future? the origins of modern human behaviour and the adaptations (from environmental to cognitive) made by our species in their migrations out of Africa.

Very Rough Interview Notes

Welcome to the show professor Barker.

Rob: Bottom-up culture- pre-history?

early societies were highly complex.

Rob: Are you talking about tribe and band culture?

Rob: How long have you been at this?

I did a PhD in the early seventies.

Rob: What are some of the most important things you've learned that could make a difference for humanity today?

We are a complicated species. People in the past had the same capacity as us to take wise, foolish decisions.

People create the history they want.

If you take human impact on the environment-- you have the sentimentalizing of the past-- the noble savage, then the people ruining the landscape.

The past

Rob: out of that mess what tidbits can you pull that can teach us some lessons?

One of the projects I worked on was in Libya where Khadafi was interested in how the edges of the dessert had been farmed. Bottom-up local ways to deal with the environment, instead of top-down imposed. Later top-down efforts were extremely damaging.

Rob: Why do you care about the transition from foraging and hunting to farming?

It's seen as one of the great moments in human history.

We have a long past in the pleistocene and ice ages. Then when you get to the holocene, which was about 10-11,000 years ago. Before holocene was primarily hunting and gathering.

it's on the basis of those societies that we get state societies.

Rob: sedentism-- could you explain that word.

setting down and staying in one place. There's the view that hunter gathers were mobile.

Becoming sedentary, settling down, was one of the great markers of agriculture. We know that hunter gatherers became sedentary. We k now many agricultural groups that were highly mobile.

I've been interested in the transition because I believe, based on others' writings, that farming led to land ownership and storage of surplus food, which led to hierarchy.

I believe there are two eras you've focused your work on-- the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Can you explain the characteristics of each and the time frames?

Can one part of the world be Pleistocene and another part be Holocene?

You talk about horticulture, agriculture and cultivation. Are there important differences in these in terms of anthropological/archaeological assessment? And you distinguish between plant harvesting and management.

That's broadly true. The hierarchical systems are primarily associated

with agricultural communities.

Hunter gather communities broadly share resources and are broadly sharing.

THere are exceptions. There are Hunter Gather societies that did create hierarchies and there are some early agricultural societies that show little sign of that.

Warfare, there are very few signs of organized embedded violence in the archeological record. When you get larger

Rob: You get into discussing different foods. How do different kinds of foods affect cultural development. You discuss how rice creates hierarchy and class, for example. Can you talk about that.

Most of the world's population lives on a very small number of food products.

Many cereals can be used to make alcoholic drink, which would be part of social lives, ceremonies and so on.

In borneo we found that domestic rice was around much earlier than we thought of. They largely lived by hunting and gathering. It only actually became a staple food a few hundred years ago, at the time o f colonization.

What it is to be human today-- the role of food. Neanderthals clearly had fire. But it's really only when you get modern humans that you start to see cooking places that we would recognize.

You can see at paleolithic sites people sitting around talking and eating. Food has a very powerful role in our lives.

We have to see how hunter gatherers would have thought about these foods. Hunter gatherers were aware of and trading with farmers for a thousand years.

SOmetimes the transition was very fast-- within two or three generations, in other times it was a thousand years. In some there were highly ritualized processes.

Food was embedded in complicated social relationships.

Rob: Can you give some examples?

IN the near east, the seeds and the tools for working with them are in ritual cults' buildings.

Rob: Are you suggesting that the grains for alcohol are part of ritual cult behavior.

Alcoholic drinks have a huge role in ceremonies, passages, death. We can see that in some of the early societies the alcoholic cereals might have been really important in embedded social relationships.

transition from foraging to farming

Is it possible that farming developed so people could get drunk?

Rob: YOu talk about foraging and farming having profound social, cultural, religious and cosmological, as well as mythic significance. Can you talk about this.

Rob: I get the impression that it's not until recently, until the industrial revolution, that most people have moved to farming.

Hunting and gathering has continued to be important.

It is a revolution. It affects most of the world's population at the time. 10,000 years

5,000 years ago most people are practicing farming-- the most profound change in human history.

It affected most of the worlds populations over that few thousand years. It's not simply a nice linear story

Rob: How about today's food. Are the ways it affects our culture that anthropologists observe?

There are studies of long term agricultural histories where people can see more and less effective ways that land is managed.

Rob: you write how in a rice culture rice has been eaten by a higher class. Rice has high status. I would think that organic, free range grown meat is the high status food now.

When I started my research in Italy, in a poor part of the south, one of the signifiers of being wealthy was eating meat.

Working at the moment in Kurdistan and Iraq it's a bit like when I was in italy, there's a huge status to eating meat.

In Mozambique, I looked at the bones of the chief, of the nobles, and then of the ordinary people and you could see the better cuts of the animals were associated with the elite.

Thomas Jefferson's plantation-- archaeological study there showed foods of the elites and foods of the slaves-- high status was high quality, young animals, roasted"

The link between diet and status-- there are a lot of archaeological status. Lords in England have bones of red deer and ducks, villagers get lower status foods-- older animals.

Rob: What about myths and religion and food?

The societies we work with in Borneo, there is a kind of cosmology of the forest and the foods within it. We some of those links with some of the spirits in the forest-- ones that have been absorbed into a modern CHristianity. You can get into the.

Rob: You say, "the wild plants and crops used by present day forage ring and farming communities in Southeast Asia are associated with specific norms of social interaction and complex ideologies. --- and that Rice cultivation necessitates a world view distinctly different from that of forest dwellers. How are the world views different?

Rice is white, there's a purity to it. There've been all kinds of interesting ideas there.

The Penan-- hunter gatherers and the people Kelabit

The Kelabit say, the great thing about rice is it separates you from the forest.

The Penan say the bad thing about rice is it separates you from the forest.

Rob: I'm interested separation, disconnection and connection.

The Kelabit have one word that all plants that you and I would consider domesticated and wild ones and a different one for rice-- that rice needs people.

Humans got into the rain forest about 50,000 years ago and they were burning

Rice becomes part of that world, but it is not adopted immediately as a food staple.

Rob: You've written about your interest in the origins of modern human behaviour and the adaptations (from environmental to cognitive) made by our species in their migrations out of Africa.

The Nair caves--

The adaptations that human societies had to make to live in human places

The Nair caves gives us insights into how humans lived in rain forests. And Inuits living

25,000 years ago was last glacial maximum-- hardest situation--the coldest, driest period

The work I've done has been mostly in Borneo. We've gone back to get data from where there were digs in the 1950s.

Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan-- Neanderthals. excavated by Ralph Slecki

Rob: What did you learn from looking there?

Libyan caves.

Rob: How were neanderthals different, in terms of their food, compared to Homo Sapiens

Neanderthals were around for a long time-- 300,000 years.

They were effective hunters, they partly scavenged. They were beginning, looking at the plaque on the their teeth.

Rob: change in human relationship to nature from cooperating with to dominating and controlling.

the division between nature and culture is a western european post-enlightenment concept. Modern human have been manipulating, effecting their environment pretty much their entire history, going back 200,000 years, including burning the forest

In the Nair caves we can b

burning the forest"

you could say that say that journey of culture over nature is as old our species. When you have established agricultural systems, in the one sense agriculture is 50,000 years old, but actually, agriculture as a dominant way of life is probably only 400-500 years old. That leads up to when does the Anthropocene start-- when is it largely a humanly affected environment we're in. One goes it with the the industrial revolution, another goes with 1950.

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Rob Kall is the host of the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360, where he discusses how the bottom up mind and bottom up revolution are reaching different areas of the world, of life, of politics, business, society and anywhere else.

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