The World on a Dinner Platter – Cedar Sanderson
It always comes back to food. It’s not just my personal pleasure in cooking, eating, and feeding others. It is literally the foundation of the human condition: good food and plenty of it.
I’m currently studying the history of the world, prior to 1500. In the first chapter of the book we were assigned to read, the point is made that humans have been around for a very long time, it took a long time to develop agriculture, but there weren’t many of them pre-agriculture. The crux of the matter is the ability to grow more food than you could hunt, or gather, in a small group. Large groups, which would build societies and cities, simply could not exist on a subsistence diet.
One of my classmates, in a discussion forum, stated that humans were desperate for nutrients and one of the main ways to get food was to graze which made me do a head-desk, and then start thinking. We take abundant food for granted. The child (in college, but still, a child) who seems to think that humans grazed on grass in pre-history has no doubt never missed a meal in their life unless it was by choice. The world we live in offers enough variety, enough abundance, that people can be ‘vegan’ and still survive, although thriving and being healthy are different matters.
The book tells me that women didn’t have as many children before agriculture, and that’s why population was lower. I snort and mutter something impolite under my breath. In reality hunter-gatherers have more in common with herds of animals, and again, it’s about the food. They were reliant on what was growing right there, right then. They had no way of producing a surplus nor of storing same. If they overhunted an area they were forced to move or die. If the tribe’s population grew too large, they starved or succumbed to disease, just like a deer herd or the snowshoe hare population collapses every few years to build slowly back up, limited by the supply of available food.
Humans lived that way for a very long time. Women having less babies? Probably, only it wasn’t through some kind of arcane desire to keep the population down. It was through the lack of food – nursing a child in the modern era is not terribly effective birth control, but in the time of subsistence the woman’s body simply couldn’t handle the dual load of nursing and pregnancy. I became pregnant with two of my children while nursing full time, I can speak to the enormous drain it is even on a well-fed body.
Because it’s fat. I have fat, on me, and in my diet. Fat is something you just don’t see prior to agriculture, and there’s a reason so many cultures revere the plump woman (just look at all the Venus statues from around the world). A fat woman could have babies and she could survive nursing and this meant the family could go on. And while we’re on the makin’ babies topic, here’s something: my history book laments the rise of the patriarchy alongside the rise of civilization after agriculture, constraining women and making them be under the thumb of the male. Well, that’s not patriarchy, that’s food. Men could hunt, and bring in the meat that was desperately needed for survival. Women gathered, but the men were the hunters.
Why didn’t the women hunt? Well, babies. Pregnant, nursing, malnourished…. The women were managing all they could, and the men were taking care of them. Women were better able to survive (yes, I am counting death in childbirth) in that harsh world than men were. Men were a valuable commodity in a time when hunting and protection of the tribe-family against others who wanted the same food they needed to live menaced the women and children. Female infanticide was practiced long before recorded history, evidence shows. Men were more valuable to the hunter-gatherers and it wasn’t even questioned it seems. But my history book complains that it was the rise of civilization post-agriculture that was to blame for the oppression of women and the gender inequality. Prior to ‘society’ it claims men and women were equal.
In reality, it’s all about the food. Only with the surplus of food that came with agriculture, and the animal husbandry it made possible, was civilization able to finally happen after long eons of death through starvation. While the hunter-gatherers had no ‘cushion’ against hard times, in a social setting people had a surplus and could support more people in one place through the creation of agriculture and other innovations. Cities came from towns, and villages, as the populations grew. As societies grew, the complexity of interpersonal relationships also grew. Men and women’s roles changed with each level of ‘class’ that developed, as did the concept of childhood, education, and family. Politics developed, conflicts grew into wars with the attendant need for armies. The concept of taxation came about to support the cities as they grew too large to draw from personal relationships with the farmers who produced the food. Money came into being as easier to handle than exchange of goods, and along with it, writing to record those exchanges.
From the perspective of epidemiology, disease came into its own. First, in the small agricultural hamlets where people lived with their animals, in the form of zoonosis transmitted to humans from other hosts. Later, in epidemics that raged through populations which would have been too diffuse to be affected at this level before cities were a thing. Also, people were no longer moving away from their own wastes. The balance of increasing population pressures against increased population support through agriculture and community is, in hindsight, obviously tilted toward a growing population but that wasn’t always clear in the past. There were times it looked like a close-run between collapse of civilization and a return to subsistence. In the end, the food was the weight on the balance toward success of mankind.
Despite plagues, and wars, though, humans just got bigger and better with the access to food. In fact, I would argue that the predominance of Western Civilization on world history is not due to some weird conspiracy, but to food. Or rather, the kinds and abundances of certain foods. Looking at a map of the rise of what my book calls “First Civilizations” you promptly see that several arose in disparate areas at about the same time (very roughly, but we’re talking in hundreds if not thousands of years here). One combined and arose out of two, and dominated global history. Indo-European civilizations had access to more variety of foodstuffs, and more of it. This led to the freedom of humanity to learn, explore, and express themselves in lasting ways.
More variety of food offers the benefit of not depending on one crop overmuch. We can look into modern history at the potato famine for a facile example (although there were also socio-political things going on there). Areas where only two or three staples grew plentifully were more vulnerable to viroids or other plant diseases, weather, and (don’t hit me!) climate change. Contrary to current urban legend, climate change is indeed a thing, and has been, independent of any human factor, for as long as mankind has been around and longer. It’s just that now we have the hubris to blame those changes on ourselves in some bizarre ritual of self-flagellation.
More plentiful food was a fluke of geographic location, mostly. The Nile River, with its gentle annual floods, was the breadbasket of the West. The Fertile Crescent was also, to a lesser extent, able to support a higher population level than dreamed possible as recent archaeological discoveries have shown. Look up Gobleki Tepe sometime, it is utterly fascinating.
Napoleon said that an army marched on its stomach, which always evoked an odd slug-like mental image to me. But it is equally true that the human condition rose on the belly of the well-fed man. Cities, wealth, power, vast libraries of knowledge, and it’s all because of a good dinner and a big pot of beer to chase it down with.