The World on a Dinner Platter – Cedar Sanderson

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.

300 responses to “The World on a Dinner Platter – Cedar Sanderson

  1. c4c

  2. If a woman’s bodyfat drops low enough, she can stop ovulating. Happened to my cousin. She’s a “Tough Mudder” athlete. Very fit. Spent a couple grand trying to get pregnant. During the adoption ordeal, she quit training. She has three girls now.

    The Indo-Europeans more-or-less invented full blown pastoralism. That’s the third option after the H-G and ag lifestyles. Lactase persistence (and the horse) let them roll over a lot of people.

  3. > climate change

    Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” is supposed to be a book about French history. It’s actually about climate change; she shows how the sudden cooling of the climate and resulting shorter growing seasons drove the famines and social upheaval that underlay the “history” part.

    Unfortunately for the AGC types, it’s highly unlikely there are any “anthopogenic” component to the climate part…

    • I just recently ran across a theory that the witch hunts which swept Europe were triggered by climate change (they thought the witches were trying to influence weather?) but I had not had time to fact check that. Now you have me interested in looking harder.

      • Probably not that the witches were influencing the weather, but witches were behind all the problems that could be caused by changes in weather, such as crop failure, migration of pest species into new areas, new diseases showing up, and stuff like that.

      • While the witches were indeed held to influence weather, it was probably more on the order of accumulating Bad Things inspired the search for scapegoats.

        • Revenge and opportunism also played a part. My dad got into genealogy, originally to try to track down a younger sister who’d been given up for adoption, and at one point, he thought we were descended from one of the Salem witches. That changed as he did more research. The progressing went like this:

          1. Descended from one of the Salem witches.
          2. Descended from the first wife of a man whose second wife was accused of being a witch by the relatives of the first wife.
          3. Descended from someone else who lived on the other side of the county, but who had the same name.

          Revenge was likely a motive for the family of the first wife, but opportunism came in because, according to what dad found, the Salem town fathers had a grudge against the husband because of a land survey he’d done.

      • G. Parker’s _Global Crisis_ about the disaster of the 17th century caused by the Maunder Minimum. It does not address witch trials per se, but does talk a great deal about the unrest the climate dip contributed to. The Reformation also played a role in the 1580s-1700 witchcraft mess north of the Alps because you no longer had the moderating cap of the Inquisition, and local laws granted the local lord and the accusor chunks of the accused’s property.

        • Wow, talk about blowing away a stereotype; TXRed just called the Inquisition a moderating influence. I can see it though; you’ve got a procedure to follow; no one hunting witches wants to get bogged down in hogwash.

          • The inquisition in action:

            Of course, nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Well, the origins of most of the Inquisitions was that the Church decided that if anybody was going to kill heretics, it was going to be the Church.

            Basically, many secular rulers accused their rivals of heresy and acted against them on that basis.

            The Church took over investigations concerning heresy with the result that fewer people were found guilty of heresy and the heretics often got lesser punishment than the secular rulers were giving out.

            It should be noted that in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition quickly decided that Witchcraft accusations were basically nonsense.

            • More like, the Church claimed authority to say if someone was a heretic or not before the local gov’t could execute them. But the reason you point to is correct– massive abuses.

            • You can guess how much the folks using heresy claims for personal gain “loved” to have actual theologians show up, and “loved” to have people get no punishment if they repented….. (If you recant, you’re not a heretic anymore.)

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Nod. [Very Very Big Grin]

                Oh, I’d love to have a scene in a story where the Theologians, after a big discussion with the “Heretic”, tells the King “well he has some good points so we’ll take him home with us so we can discuss this some more with him”. [Wink]

            • A sideways look at the Spanish Inquisition through food culture is in a book called “A Drizzle of Honey” looking at 15th C Conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) who were inquisitioned / tortured on suspicion of remaining practicing / believing Jews, often based on their cooking practices, household practices, and recipes. many of the recipes are good tasting as-is, and adaptable for a modern palate.

              I remember reading somewhere that converso families well into the 20th C would often feel the need to eat ham sandwiches outside on Saturdays to prove that they were not Jews, even after 400 years of Catholicism.

              I also read that the Portuguese later worked a special Catch-22 into it for the shipwrecked seamen of Henry VIIIs England. If they admitted Anglicanism / Protestantism, they were burned as a heretic, and if they claimed to be Catholic, they were hung as being in revolution against their King.

              Such are the vagaries of Kings – oh wait, from the news today, don’t we have one here now?


              • I’d imagine being one of those families that managed to NOT get your stuff taken away and kicked out of the country would have some major impacts on behavior– the Conversos were attacked with accusations of being “secret Jews” by jealous Catholics and jealous Jews.

              • We certainly have a wannabe king. If only he cried for the plight of the Yazidi women who have been enslaved by ISIS because of “his majesty’s” inability to understand foreign policy.

                Red line.

          • You could not get a witch hunt going without ruling that witchcraft is a crimen exceptum — a crime exempt from ordinary standards of evidence. The Inquisition insisted, very severely, that it wasn’t. Inquisitors would ask such nasty questions.

            So, you fell sick after she cursed you? How did you know it was because of the curse? How did you know it wasn’t natural? If it was supernatural, how did you know it was her and not some other witch or a devil, or even God’s judgment?

            Or, so you claim that you saw her at the sabbat? And those who saw her at home in bed saw only an illusion? How in blue blazes did you know it wasn’t an illusion at the sabbat?

            • For anyone interested in some DARK fantasy, consider how difficult it would be to prove witchcraft really was causing something.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Especially if the investigators didn’t have “magic” on their side. [Frown]

                • Yeah. If you went by the actual witchcraft beliefs of the era, you could not compel God, and all other magic is from the Devil, which is the problem.

          • For all its sins, the Early Modern Catholic Church could see the big picture — they knew that society could dissolve into anarchy if all normal justice was superseded by witch-hunting. The Inquistion was hunting heretics and witches — but wanted to only hunt actual heretics and witches, rather than destroy society around them.

          • It’s not so much that the Inquisition was a moderating influence. But that the Catholic church acted as a force for reason and justice: where it was strong, oddballs, old ladies, and people with tempting property couldn’t get sabotaged by phony-baloney accusations. The church was death on superstition.

            Where it got dicey was for the true-believing heretics. Your con man could recant and get off pretty much scott free, but if you were determined to spread seditious disinformation that would lead innocent folks to damnation, all bets were off.

        • What, you mean we’ve seen before now that asset forfeiture of the accused by local law enforcement tended to end badly?

          History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

          • There seems to be no idea so bad, so foul, so vitiating of social health that somebody, somewhere, won’t pick it up, dust it off and repackage it for modern consumption.

            As corollary, there seems to be no idea so … that some suckers won’t swallow it whole.

          • I caught a column that reported asset forfeiture last year for the first time exceeded actual losses to theft (the kind by criminals, not by government).

      • From what I’ve been able to find, it’s got more to do with how far they are from someone who’d smack them for blaming a scapegoat!

      • Notice that when global temperatures cool, pretty universally bad things happen, but when global temperatures rise, not so much.

    • I am pro-AGC. I don’t care for fading, so I think Automatic Gain Control is a pretty neat thing.

    • The regrowth of vegetation in the Americas after the plague die-offs has been proposed as an anthropogenic cause of the drop in temperature then. It doesn’t get much play in the media because of the cognitive dissonance it causes for people.

    • The most recent of the Total War series of video games, titled Attila, includes a climate change component. The northern regions get colder as the game progresses, forcing the populations in those areas to start invading the rest of Europe in order to have enough food to survive.

    • Nor is there an anthropogenic component to the warming and cooling cycle that took the area of Westfold Sweden above the Arctic Circle from tundra to wheat, deciduous trees, and plums, then back to tundra in an 800 year period from about 350 BC to 450 AD. (per the excavation report of a dig one of my archaeology/history professors worked on which examined pollen in the midden-heaps and in the levels of the excavation.

      Also see eg: the Greenland sagas, for conditions there when the settlements first were established, versus the climate conditions which existed in the later 1300s, when Catholic church records detail conditions found in Greenland when a Bishop was sent there by Rome to help the people “remain European and Catholic” rather than surviving by “going native” ( Inuit ? ) see “Woven Into the Earth” which looks at climate as a part of examining current 13th C fashion in the grave-goods clothing preserved in graves frozen shortly after the burials.

      Neither do the AGW / AGC models seem to be able to account for the Roman or Mediaeval warm periods, or the also contemporaneously-documented Little Ice Age of the late 1500s / early 1600s.

      What really puts me off these religious fanatics is that the entire idea is based on the examination of a few trees on the Kamchatka Peninsula, collected at once, by a single expedition, while ignoring a multiply-sourced, independently vetted 8000 year record of climate and weather in Europe and Russia west of the Urals that is contained in the tree-ring record used by archaeologists to analyze wood found in archaeological sites to determine when the tree grew or was cut down, as an aid in fixing the age / date of the site or level of the site.

      Never mind that the cure for global warming / freezing / changing / shortages / overproduction / dancing in the streets / and dogs and cats sleeping together is always an expansion of government power and a transfer of wealth from those who work for it to a politically-connected oligarchy.

      Oh my – was that my outside voice?


  4. Around here, history books that blame the patriarchy usually head for the wall.

    • Well, yes, except… it’s an e-book (my tablet doesn’t fly well) and a rental. I’m required to use it and take quizzes on the content for class. Ah, well, it’s fun to pick apart the biases and wish that History classes were still about history.

      • William O. B'Livion

        They are about history, after all the victors write the history books, so you get the history they want you to have.

        Doesn’t mean it matches reality. Lots of school doesn’t.

      • Curious: are you exposing the class to better information, or keeping your head down for self-preservation?

        • Currently head-down until I have a better feel for the professor and students. But this is a three-week sprint class, so I am going to just regurgitate material at him, there’s no time to do the in-depth research I love so much. Here’s an example of what I’m writing for the class:

          • Very glad to hear that. We all want you to get good marks and eventually graduate. On the assumption that the professor picked the text it’s always safer to spout back what’s in it and the lectures. There are occasionally real teachers who might encourage an honest debate, but sadly in my experience far too few. Mostly they really want students who are good little mirrors reflecting back the wisdom they bestow from on high.
            In other words, get the damn diploma, you can educate yourself on your own time.

            • Uncle Lar, your cynical attitude towards academic scholarship is nearly as appalling as what gets fobbed off on students as academic scholarship.

              While it is important to demonstrate ones’ mastery of the material as presented, it is important to keep in mind that “mastery” does not equate to swallowing the guff whole; both definitions of the word apply, the second more than the primary:

              1. comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.

              2. control or superiority over someone or something.

              • RES, I earned that cynical attitude. 64 years in total, 24 in federal government service, 15 in the private sector, dual BSE in Industrial and Systems disciplines, MS in Operations Research.
                And outside STEM, and less within it as time marches on, I cannot help but believe that my attitude towards academic scholarship is well deserved simply from my perch outside looking at the all too frequent displays of idiocy by students, faculty, and administration.
                BA and unfortunately far too many BS degrees are fast becoming every bit as valuable as the proverbial pitcher of warm spit.

            • I’m working on it. This is Winter Term, then I have two full semesters remaining before I’m done with this. So close.

      • The Other Sean

        I was just reading through here again and noticed the history e-book rental – anybody else get an Orwellian vibe from that concept?

        • LOL – well, in this case it was $37 to rent it for the term, or more than twice that to buy a book I knew I wouldn’t want to refer to again. I have plenty of reference texts on the shelves already I trust more than this one. So, yeah, it is Orwellian. Can’t trust it, but must use it.

        • I’ve rented research books for that very reason – got it for a month, read it, made some notes. I’d rather pay $9.95 for 30 days with an obscure monograph I need ASAP than 1) $130 used or 2) wait a month for ILL when I need the book ASAP.

  5. Women were better able to survive (yes, I am counting death in childbirth) in that harsh world than men were

    One reason women lived longer, even with the dangers of childbirth, was the fact that primitive hunting was very, very dangerous. The chance of death or life threatening injury was very high. A small cut was dangerous with the extremely poor hygiene that was common.

    In a primitive hunter-gatherer society, to live to age 30 was a rare event.

    • Yes, I think the average age at death in the Paleolithic was something like 25 years. More men died than women so it made sense to try and have more men around to expend.

      • The Other Sean

        Going from vague memories, I think that number includes those who died before reaching their teens, or in very high warfare environments. I think the life expectancy of males surviving childhood was more like 35 in less-conflicted environments.

        • I think that’s the one for after agriculture– the big problem with figuring out life span for hunter/gatherers is a lack of bodies, and a lot of guesswork being involved in interpreting them.

          • The Other Sean

            Its quite possible the numbers I’m remembering are from the Neolithic rather than the Paleolithic, but I could swear they were associated with hunter-gatherer tribes, or at most hunter-gather with some limited horticulture or animal husbandry, not full-on agriculture. Then again, its been at least 4-5 years since I encountered the info, and even then it would have been merely the best-estimate at that time.

            • Maybe it’s just one of those eternal problem things? I know it applies to even the start of this century for “life expectancy” stuff.

              • BobtheRegisterredFool

                LeBlanc’s Constant Battles. The natural rate of violent death for men in an endemic warfare society(most of them) that is breaking even or winning is one in three or one in four.

      • Including or excluding infant deaths?

        • That would be an interesting path of research to follow. I know we’re relying on bones, here, and physical evidence because the time period far predates writing. Newborn bones don’t last well – they aren’t fully calcified – so that might be a bit tricky.

          • It would be important, albeit practically impossible, to include the miscarriage rate, too. That would act as an indicator of the commonality of foetal abnormalities related to poor nutrition. Which sorta kinda means the data for such studies don’t exist.

          • Yes, as Peter Capstick put it, “The Great African Sanitation Department takes over and it’s hard to look at a skull fragment the size of a demitasse cup six months later and say this person was killed by a lion.”

    • Wouldn’t any tribe who allowed females along on the hunt be less likely to survive, and therefore not as likely to pass down their traits? I’m basing this on stories of female animal trainers either having to take a few days a month off, or get hysterectomies. Seems to me, a predator taking extra interest in your hunting party is less than optimum.

      • Women under physical stress experience amenorrhea, which in a time where they had to travel long distances (danger, run away!) or join the hunters, was a great biological adaptation. The problem of course is that amenorrhea = no babies and you do that long enough, the tribe dies anyway.

        • So, a tribal culture COULD choose female infanticide or to assign girl babies (children of successful hunters? chosen by some other criterion?) to train as non-procreating huntresses, depending on current needs for hunter replacements. If so, makes an interesting & defensible additional cultural wrinkle for world-building.

          • Yes, it does. And there are always a percentage of women who just can’t have children. Culturally that was a source of shame for them, if you look at the story of Abraham and Sarah.

            • Of course it was — child-bearing was the single most important contribution anyone could make to the tribe, given the high rate of members turning tits-up.

              As for the idea of non-procreating huntresses, given that the average adult male would have been about five feet tall and weighing slightly over a hundred pounds with females significantly smaller, it seems likely there wouldn’t have been much value in such contributions. More likely they would have been deployed minding the flocks/herds where their slighter stature wouldn’t have increased risk of group failure as readily as in a hunt.

              • Just guessing here, but: That may have been the attitude toward huntresses with respect to hunt teams for large game. Where smaller game – rabbits, squirrels, birds, etc. – is plentiful, either kids or women can (and do, today) hunt successfully to keep the pot filled without incurring the expense & risk of forming teams for overnight or large-game hunting trips.
                This lasts until something changes the selection criterion. E.g., a major shortage of hunters due to hunt losses or inter-tribal conflict, or perhaps a family line of larger-than-average women.
                Barren women in hunt-dominent cultures would take these roles naturally as a useful-though-2nd best activity – nobody gets to malinger! – and would model / teach the skills to other women at need. In balanced or gather-dominent cultures, where hunters are less needed, not so much.

                • Small game was usually caught with traps and snares. Much easier than trying to hit a rabbit or squirrel with a spear or arrow.

                  • That was my reaction, too, so i have to give this a “Like.”

                    Small game is also notably not particularly nutritious and should be viewed as supplemental, probably as useful for its fur/plumage and sinews as for its meat.

                    • Considering what wolves subsist on for much of the year (rodents) that mayn’t be likely.

                      It’s more probable for subsistence socities that every protrin sourcecwas vital delending on the season.

                    • That was a doozy: it’s more probable for subsistence societies that every protein source was vital depending on the season.


                  • How it’s caught is a detail, affected by the local technology culture – how-we-do-this-here. Same people do it; and remember the starting point was “where small game is plentiful”.

          • There’s a growing body of science that says more women had roles that included weapons than was previously thought. A goodly number of scientists are going back and taking a second look at excavated burials in which weapons being found was used to identify the body as male to double check that identification because of some surprises they’ve had.

            • There’s a growing body of nonsense. Whenever those skeletons are examined they aren’t warriors/hunters skeletons.
              I don’t see why “risked life in child bearing” and “raised kids in horrible circumstances” isn’t appreciated and for women to be really heroic they must be men.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Nod. Weapons could be added to the grave of Important Women even if they never used the Weapons in War or Hunting.

                And as you implied, in most of those cases the Women’s bodies show no evidence that they had used the Weapons in War or Hunting.

                • Mind you, there will be the occasional woman warrior, the same way there will be the occasional guy who stays home to look after the kids. Not a lot of those, though. Primitive societies have no mercy for outliers.

                  • Of course there will be. They’re not the norm, and these people who pretend they are the norm are merely making themselves look ridiculous.

                  • The era I’m talking about in particular was utterly ruthless by modern standards. But they couldn’t afford what we can: to coddle those who are soft in the head about what men and women should do versus what they could do.

                    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                      One fictional story had a comment about a deliberately primitive (by our standards) society.

                      The comment was “the women knew their place but as always the women made sure their place was as important as the men’s place”.

                      While “fictional”, it stuck with me and none of my readings about the past have made it seem false. [Smile]

                  • The Other Sean

                    Indeed. And there are also any number of alternate explanations for the burial of weapons with ladies, besides the ladies actually being warrior. It could be a sign of respect for high personal or familial status, unrelated to participation in war or hunting. It could simply be a show of familial wealth (which is a form of status, I suppose). The lady could be a relation (wife, mother, daughter, sister) to a great warrior. The lady could have been involved in ritual activity related to war or hunting, without normally engaging in either. Somewhere in between the woman warrior and the domestic sphere, a lady may have had a part in a defending the band/tribe while the menfolk were away attacking somebody else. That’s just off the top of my head.

                  • Primitive societies don’t have a lot of tolerance for discretionary specialization, either, I think… it’s a matter of wealth & choices. If the current male/female ratio, large/small game ratio and density, pressure from adjacent tribes, etc. demands it, women will hunt and fight, and will find their most effective roles to contribute.

                    I think we’re talking about the skirts of the distribution here, not the median case.

                • It’s possible they had some sort of very basic training to be able to defend the more vulnerable of the group, without being a hunter/fighter.

                  • In case of raids by an animal or another group, or being attacked while at a resource such as a water hole, I can easily imagine women defending themselves and their children with weapons.

                  • Said very basic training becoming experience, rapidly, in times when attacks by local wildlife or intruding tribes were relatively frequent.

              • I don’t see why “risked life in child bearing” and “raised kids in horrible circumstances” isn’t appreciated and for women to be really heroic they must be men.

                C’mon — you know the reason. Penis envy.

                Some women just take self-hatred too far, but don’t have the balls to admit it.

              • So you’re saying that the male warrior who was found to be a female ‘warrior’ who shows none of the signs on skeletal wear from actually using a weapon… isn’t actually a warrior?


            • Growing body of science? Please, do provide links to this “growing body of science” so we may examine this ourselves.

              • The steppe nomads (Scythians and pre-Scythians) did have a relatively high number of burials with women interred with weapons, and many of those women’s bones showed signs of having ridden and done archery, and a little sword work. But they are the only culture I know of with that percentage of 1) extant noble burials of 2) high status women with 3) arms and armor that 4) match the wear and tear on the women’s bones. A. Mayor’s book _The Amazons_ lays out a lot of the recent research and archaeology.

                But the steppe nomads are the only cultural group that I’ve read about where warrior women were relatively common. The horse and the bow acted as equalizers.

                • A person on horseback with a sword has a decided advantage over the foot warrior (scenes in film and television programs showing somebody afoot disarming and unseating a rider should be discounted; do not try this at home.)

                  Later bows, such as those employed by the later steppe nomads (Turks, Seljuks, Kazakhs, Magyars, and especially Mongols) were laminated compound bows with a pull exceeding what most women could draw — especially draw the multiple times required for combat.

                  • It seems to me that the hard part of footborn defense against horseback attack, especially in a pre-stirrup era, centers around attempting to acquire the horse.

                    If you don’t care about that all one need do is slash or stab or spear the big horsey chunks coming right at you, and then (the harder part) figure out where to dodge aside as the rider threat takes care of itsef in the ensuing crash.

                    IIRC the Sharpe books endorse “smash the horse in the mouth with your sword” as a strategy against solo cavalry attacks, which should be reasonably adaptable to earlier armaments, whether bronze sword or club or sharp pointy stick.

                    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                      The other way to stop a horseman’s attack is to present the horse with something the horse doesn’t want to deal with.

                      One of which is a “wall of sharp pointy things”.

                      The horse can not “see” a way through or around that wall without getting hurt and will argue with the guy on his back when the guy wants him to forward. [Grin]

                    • Greatswordsmen had two principle jobs: lop the heads off pikes and lop the forelegs off charging horses. Dead horses were often followed by dead knights.

                    • I considered that, but if it worked as well in real life as it does in books & films there would have been scant use for cavalry. Cavalry persisted for a sufficiently long period that I concluded that Sharpe Strategy was one of those easier said than done type things.

                    • I suspect Sharpe never fought against a horse. People tend to forget that not only is the man on the horse’s back trained, but so is the horse! And warhorses are not stupid.
                      And they like to bite and stomp people.

                      It wasn’t until the discovery of the pikeman’s square that there was any real defense against cavalry, and even then, cavalry soldiers were still better than foot soldiers.

                    • “…Dead horses were often followed by dead knights.” Followed, a day later, by some foot-soldiers with better armor.

                    • People really like to blame firearms for the decline of the mounted knight. In reality I think it was the redevelopment of well disciplined, well equipped, massed infantry. It just happens that those infantry quickly transitioned from pikes to muskets.

                    • I suspect that well disciplined, well equipped, massed infantry were often persuaded by artillery to break ranks.

                    • You might be right, there’s a reason why Wellington is quoted as saying that soldiers have to be more afraid of their officers than of the enemy.

                    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                      Yet, even in Wellington’s time, British officers lead from the front when charging the enemy forces.

                      Mind you, I suspect that Wellington’s troops were more afraid of their Sergeants than their officers. [Evil Grin]

                    • That was what Gustavus Adolphus found.

                    • sanfordbegley

                      One thing to note. John Van Stry mentioned that horses were also trained fighters and discounted Richard Sharpe’s method of dealing with them. Most things in combat are more difficult than they seem to us armchair warriors. I know something about people though, big animals bearing down on them are scary. Sharpe’s method actually should work, people just didn’t. There were two reasons for this. One is the immense value of the horse if captured mad it hard to do. The more important factor was simple fear. The man who can calmly face a charging animal and attack it with a muscle powered weapon at the last moment is rare. People broke in Pike formations from fear. All that took was standing your ground until the horses quit charging. If you have never faced a charging animal or a stampede you have no idea how hard it is to do

                    • Exactly! For example, this …

                      … looks a lot easier to do than is actually the case.

                    • “… infantry quickly transitioned from pikes to muskets.” – AFAIK, quickly was relative and depended on technology advances in musketry reload time and accuracy. If I understand the research behind Flint’s 1632 series, they coexisted – ranged weaponry reducing the numbers of opponents, getting one or at most two shots off before the pike squares crashed into one another. Then they needed to hide behind the pikes.

                      Same kind of thing at the earlier big archery victories at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt – the archers quickly erected static defenses of dense pikes and shields to protect themselves from cavalry charges. I don’t believe they had the long (20ft) pikes and trained pikemen yet, so it took time to set a defensive line.

                      Later developments of musketry, allowed sufficiently quick reload while walking (a British line ‘charge’) for continuous volleys – 6 or more per surviving soldier (?) between commencement of hostilities and engagement at polearm (much fewer) /saber range, so ranged weapons had finally transitioned into an offensive weapon that _could_ take battle to the enemy foot soldiers instead of waiting defensively. Against cavalry, as late as Waterloo the British still preferred to use their lines and squares of musketry as an immovable defense.

            • I’m sure women used weapons. But I doubt your evidence is quite as indicative as you think.

              Bear in mind that graves with weapons are almost always of leaders/exceptional people. Weapons and the like are costly to make so you don’t throw them away by burying them with every dead person that used them. Hence the people buried with such grave goods are unlikely to be representative of the larger mass. It is quite plausible that an exceptional woman would be buried with grave goods including weapons but that says a lot more about the fact that she was exceptional than whether or not she hunted – which she may have – and says effectively nothing about what the average unexceptional woman did.

              In EVERY HG society ever studied there is clear sex discrimination for the overwhelming majority of members. Women do the gathering and food prep sorts of things, men do the riskier more longer range activities like hunting large animals, gathering honey from wild bees etc. None of this stops women from needing weapon knowledge because they will still need to cut things and quite possibly use slings and arrows to get small game, but they won’t – generally speaking – be carrying the heavier weapons like spears.

              And to counter what I suspect will be the next thing you want bring up. Teenage girls – particularly ones who have yet to reach puberty (and that was likely later than now due to a less rich diet) may well also contribute to the longer range activities but they are going to be limited in terms of strength and speed compared to their male siblings and elders.

            • I’d like to see some cites on this “growing body of science.” In no hunter/gather society which we’ve had opportunity to study (and there’s a raft of ’em) have women been hunters. There’s a reason for this.

              Women are weaker, and less able to take damage than men. This is not misogynist nor sexist, it is cold, hard scientific fact. Men also die younger, for the simple reason that when you soup up an engine it wears out faster.

              Moreover, you dont’ NEED lost of men to survive, as a species, but you do need lots of women, hence when wildlife managers are needing to — as an example — lower the number of deer, they issue more permits for does than bucks.

              _No_ subsistence level culture subjects it’s weakest, most vulnerable and ultimately most valuable members to unneeded danger.

              The contrary view is revisionist drek put forth to suit the modern feminist idiocy that gender is a social construct.

              • “Women are weaker, and less able to take damage than men.”

                (Waggles hand) From what I’ve been able to understand, it depends on the type of (physical) damage. However, in terms of the type of damage taken during warfighting, you are correct.

        • Among the Comanche, the high-protein, super low-fat diet in late winter/early spring led to miscarriages and birth problems. They’d given up infanticide when they left the Great Basin and moved to the Plains, but nature still worked against rapid reproduction. The people of the southern Plains may be an exception, though, because gathering and plant food played a far smaller role in diet than did hunting, once the horse arrived/returned. The Comanche imported carbs.

  6. Fire was the most important discovery of man.

    It allowed us to cook. Cooking is pre-digesting, which means your stomach can extract more calories and other nutrients with less effort than with uncooked food. One can then put those to other things than getting more food.

    (Why raw dog food may be a good diet for your overweight dog.)

    • Fire also is useful for things like hardening the pointy end of that sapling you cut, the better to poke a hole in some beast.

      People whose only knowledge of pigs comes from seeing Babe and Charlotte’s Web want to add some footage of feral boar to their viewing.

      Then they’d not only eagerly harden their pointy sticks in the fire, they’d spend their spare time thinking of things to do that would make those stick ends even tougher and pointier.

      • Feral is not required. The domestic pig can be pretty dangerous.

        That scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy fell in the pigpen? Understates it.

        • Yeah; sows get very upset when their piglets squeal, and they outweigh you by a one to three hundred pounds. They will bite.

          • There are pig species (Durocs, for one) that will reach 500 lb, and a few species that top out at around 1000 pounds. About that squealing — pigs can be trained to attack humans. and that sound is one good way to signal an attack. Don’t underestimate pigs — they’re probably smarter than any other 4-legged animal. Just lazy.

            • And why not, they’re well-fed and more or less comfortable. Their retirement plan stinks, however.

              I think I read somewhere that hogs never quit growing, and they will not overeat, unlike horses or humans.

        • One thing I learned as a boy: always slop the hogs from outside the fence. It could be life-threatening to do it from inside.

          • A domestic hog will happily eat you if you let it…….

          • Hence the old saying among farm folk – “He went to take a leak and the hogs et him.”

            I repeated that to a seriously vegan friend of ours, who was house-sitting for another friend, who had a place way out in the country with a bunch or horses, an emu, ducks, geese … and a moderately-sized but rather grouchy pig. The vegan friend was absolutely horrified to find out that not only were pigs omnivorous, they were perfectly OK with human flesh. City girl – English; had NEVER heard the expression before.

            I don’t believe she came near to that pig again.

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              Any meat-eating animal would eat human flesh (why shouldn’t it).

              Humans had mainly taught animals that it wasn’t a good idea for them to hunt humans.

              Note, I seem to remember hearing that in Eastern Asia people who have to go into the forests alone have to worry about Tiger attacks.

              Second note, I saw a documentary on the Komodo Dragon where the narrator was concerned about one of the Dragons attacking the film crew. Oh, the narrator was also bothered by the attitude of people living in the Dragons’ ranges. It seemed that those people weren’t concerned that the Komodo Dragon was an endangered species. IE they wanted the Dragons dead because the Dragons were known to attack humans. [Sad Smile]

              • An appalling number of people seem to have difficulty grasping the idea that some species are endangered because if they weren’t, humans would be.

                Similarly surprising is the number of people who sneeringly observe that, should you die in your sleep your pet cat would happily eat you yet fail to generalize that to other meat-consuming beasts. Ample experimental evidence exists to argue that under comparable conditions (absence of available alternative food sources) other humans would willingly consume you.

              • People don’t generally think of pigs as meat eaters, though.

                On another note related to your komodo dragon comment –

                During the recent brouha about lion hunting in Africa, it was noted that the only reason why lions still exist in some regions is because the locals are able to make money from hunters. Otherwise the locals would have destroyed the lions as a safety precaution.

                • In the second of Stirling’s Island novels, the Babylonians wanted to learn about guns because they could shoot out enough lions to be able to settle certain districts.

                  • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                    Yes and No.

                    During a royal hunt, the “Crown Prince” liked the guns and commented that (something to the effect) they would decrease the number of peasants killed by lions. IE the lions came into settled territory.

                    Of course, it’s interesting that many mythological heroes were known as monster-killers.

                    Since it’s human to think of anything that eats humans as a monster, those mythological heroes are from stories about hunters that went around killing animals that ate humans.

              • Patrick Chester

                Ah, humans wanting to kill things that want to eat them. Also known as having a survival instinct.

              • “Note, I seem to remember hearing that in Eastern Asia people who have to go into the forests alone have to worry about Tiger attacks.”

                Dedicated man-eating leopards run up even better scores in both Africa and Asia.

              • “Co-workers: a convenient source of protein after the Apocalypse.”

            • Reminds me of “I ain’t had that much fun since the pigs et mah little brother.”

              • I heard it as “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard/seen since the pigs ate little brother.” Same basic point.

                When I was flying in the Midwest, a local farmer was eaten by a sow just before I moved to town. He thought he’d gotten all the piglets out of the bedding. He hadn’t. Stepped on one. It screamed. There wasn’t much left by the time anyone got there.

              • Or the classic line from that well known alternate history novel “Unintended Consequences,” it’s time to feed the pigs. Whereupon a listener asks, “I thought he was Jewish?”

            • Okay, that’s a new one on me; and at one time my county was second in the nation to some county in Iowa in hogs.

              • Heard it from my maternal grandmother, I think — she had a dry sense of humor and was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania around the turn of the last century.

            • Both my farmer grandfathers made damn sure ALL the kids knew that the hogs would try to eat you if they got a chance. Anyone going into the hog pens would have someone outside the pen to watch and make sure you made it out. it also was no accident the feed troughs were right next to the fence so you could feed them without having to enter the pen. They would lure the one(s) designated for bacon and chops with food to a separate, very narrow pen where a bullet could be put in their brains at a close distance.

              I can still remember the smells of a hog slaughter to this day……

              • Hmm .. in a small town in early high school, vocational-ag class, I raised some pigs. They weren’t that aggressive, knew who was feeding them – but you DID carry a stick to smite them upon their sensitive noses when you needed to go into the pen.

                • I didn’t actually know pigs would eat flesh until watching the HBO series Deadwood. This despite having to slop hogs a couple of times while working on a dairy farm in college.

              • I raised pigs as a 4-H project from 1959 to 1964. I had one brood sow, and used artificial insemination from various different males, kept records, and so forth. I used to be very wary of the piglets, but the sow was more of a pet than anything else. She would come, fetch, roll over, etc., better than any dog. We had a few neighbors that weren’t averse to making off with a piglet or two, so I also taught her to attack/knock down/kill, and made sure one of the boys from that family saw me training her. Never had any problems. She weighed about 450 pounds.

                • Gracious – has nobody else here read Harry Harrison’s The Man from P.I.G.?

                  One of his comparatively minor works, to be sure, written to exploit the craze for James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but nonetheless amusing, with many useful facts about pigs.

  7. Pingback: The Incredible, Edible, Rise of Civilization – Cedar Writes

  8. The Other Sean

    Thank you for making me appreciate the dry, colorless, academic tome that was used in the “Origins of Agriculture” course I took about 5 years ago. That book could be used as a sleep aid, but was thankfully largely devoid of the more… dubious… ideas (I hesitate to use the word hypotheses, let alone theories) your textbook seems to be inflicting upon you. I think some of those ideas were mentioned, but briefly in an “Some researchers have suggested…” sense. I didn’t think anything could make me appreciate that text, but your tale does.

    (The course was actually well-taught, by an archaeologist who was researching early agriculture in the Balkans. Some of the journal articles we read were interesting. It was just a horrid textbook.)

  9. If your professor reads this, are you going to lose a letter grade for being pro-patriarchy?

    Seriously, I don’t remember the rise of agriculture being emphasized when I took Ancient and Medieval Science, Ancient History, nor History of Britain to 1688.

    • The two agricultural surges, first the Medieval (horse collar, iron plow, three field rotation and manure to fertilize) and the pre-Industrial (seed drill, legumes and turnips, new animal husbandry techniques) made a whole lot of high medieval and modern life possible by giving (most of) western Europe a crop surplus.

      The topic gets more emphasis in anthropology and social-history classes than in straight summary history or political history courses.

      • This is definitely a social history class, I was disappointed. I’ve already taken cultural anthropology, I wanted history.

      • Great…I knew only vaguly of the first and not at all of the second.

        Like my list of things to learn about isn’t long enough already (although I did find what appears to be a decent, short(ish) overview of the history of India).

      • A much later but equally critical element in the agricultural development of North America was the invention by one John Deere of the steel plow which is actually a combination of a metal sod cutting knife followed immediately by the curved plow blade to turn the sod and expose the soil underneath. Gave settlers the ability to transform the vast midwestern prairies into cultivated fields.
        It is also I believe where the term sod buster came from.

        • This is most certainly true. Iron plows couldn’t cut the sod. We have 4 feet of topsoil. The other big invention out here was the ability to make drainage ditches. The Irish called the area ‘the North Iowa Moors’ because it was mostly bog with moraines. You don’t find arrowheads anymore, but you still find shells.

          • sanfordbegley

            Actually, as i remember it from a biography of john Deere that I read many years ago, the plows before Deere were woodne because of a superstition that iron killed the soil. According to that biography Deere’s real innovation was in convincing people that iron and steel were reasonable to use for plowing. I am not seeking to start a battle over this, not my area of expertise. This is simply what I remember from a biography I read in the 60s. I could be entirely wrong.

            • Wiki excerpt, discount appropriately:
              “John Deere was born on February 7, 1804, in Rutland, Vermont. After a brief educational period at Middlebury College, he was apprenticed in 1821 at age 17 to Captain Benjamin Lawrence, a successful Middlebury blacksmith, and entered the trade for himself in 1825.


              “John Deere settled in Grand Detour, Illinois. At the time, Deere had no difficulty finding work due to a lack of blacksmiths working in the area. Deere found that cast-iron plows were not working very well in the tough prairie soil of Illinois and … came to the conclusion that a plow made out of highly polished steel and a correctly shaped moldboard (the self-scouring steel plow) would be better able to handle the soil conditions of the prairie, especially its sticky clay.


              “In 1837, Deere developed and manufactured the first commercially successful cast-steel plow. The wrought-iron framed plow had a polished steel share. This made it ideal for the tough soil of the Midwest and worked better than other plows. By early 1838, Deere completed his first steel plow and sold it to a local farmer, Lewis Crandall, who quickly spread word of his success with Deere’s plow. Subsequently two neighbors soon placed orders with Deere. By 1841, Deere was manufacturing 75-100 plows per year.

              “In 1843, Deere partnered with Leonard Andrus to produce more plows to keep up with demand. However, the partnership became strained …. In 1848, Deere dissolved the partnership with Andrus and moved to Moline, Illinois, because the city was a transportation hub on the Mississippi River. By 1855, Deere’s factory sold more than 10,000 such plows. It became known as ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’ and is commemorated as such in a historic place marker in Vermont.”

              • sanfordbegley

                And that is why i worded it like i did, i have been wrong before, looks like i was wrong again. Comes of using a non -vetted source and a dusty memory. Mea Culpa

                • That sounds like it might be one of those “someone didn’t understand what they were hearing” things– not you, the guy doing the report.

                  I can see how metal plows would get a reputation for killing the land– especially if they compacted the earth they were supposed to be tilling.
                  Think slicing, rather than ripping.

                  • Iron was likely too heavy and/or soft to prove durable as a plow, especially for the depths found in the Plains — as you surmise, compacting the earth rather than breaking it.

                    A steel plow would have been a hard sell to farmers leery of taking chances with scarce capital, especially on something whose long-term durability hadn’t been demonstrated. (Consider the problems new car brands, such as Hyundai and Kia, experienced competing with Toyota and Honda.)

                • The version in the biography you read and the version offered up at Wiki are not necessarily in conflict.

                  As I recall from The Arms of Krupp, steel was widely considered too brittle for most industrial use; the alloys and working techniques which enabled its successful widespread adaptation came at about the same time as Deere was working on his plow.

                  So your recalled bio may have simply taken a different tack than the Wiki editors.

                  • Full disclosure, I was born and grew up about 20 miles west of Grand Detour and more than once visited the historic site there where they have recreated the Deere home and workshop.

        • The Plow That Broke the Plains
          1936 ‧ Drama film/Short Film ‧ 28 mins
          40%·Rotten Tomatoes
          The Plow That Broke the Plains is a 1936 short documentary film which shows what happened to the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada when uncontrolled agricultural farming led to the Dust Bowl.

          “The film presents the social and economic history of the Great Plains — from the time of the settlement of the prairies, through the World War I boom, to the years of depression and drought. The first part of the film shows cattle as they grazed on grasslands, and homesteaders who hurried onto the plains and grew large wheat crops. The second part depicts the postwar decline of the wheat market, which resulted in overproduction. Footage shows farm equipment used, then abandoned. The third part shows a dust storm as it rendered a farm useless. Subsequent scenes show farmers as they left their homes and headed west. Department of Agriculture. Farm Security Administration. Information Division. (ca. 1937 – ca. 1942). Note that this is the version without the epilogue.”
          [Approx. 25″]

          Produced under FDR’s grants to artists programs, this is an important American documentary [translation: propaganda piece.]

          Per Wiki:
          “The film was sponsored by the United States government (Resettlement Administration) to raise awareness about the New Deal and was intended to cost $6,000 or less; it eventually cost over $19,000 and Lorentz, turning in many receipts written on various scraps of paper, had many of his reimbursements denied and paid for much of the film himself. Lorentz later faced criticism for appearing to blame westward bound settlers for the ecological crisis by having eroded the soil of the Plains with unrestrained farming, but the film nonetheless succeeded in driving home the message of the severity of the problem caused by the misuse of land.”

          • Lorentz later faced criticism for appearing to blame westward bound settlers for the ecological crisis by having eroded the soil of the Plains with unrestrained farming, but the film nonetheless succeeded in driving home the message of the severity of the problem caused by the misuse of land.

            In English: Lorentz was caught lying but too late to undo his propoganda victory.

  10. I don’t remember the source, but I read that public works–clean water and some form of sewage disposal–was one of the major factors in lowering infant mortality and increasing adult life expectancy. And no doubt lowered the olfactory assault as well.

    As a mother, it gives me the creeps to think how many times my kids were given antibiotics for something that a century ago could easily have been fatal.

    • I was given a tour a couple of years ago, of the old Catholic cemetery in Fredericksburg, Texas. It was only in use for about fifteen years, from the early 1850s to just after the Civil War – there are about fifty marked graves, and it was absolutely heartbreaking to me, that only ten or so were of adults – and only two of the adults were of those who had lived to be over sixty.

      All the rest were children, or babies – and some of the babies had only lived a day, or a week. There was one particularly tragic pair of graves; two children with the same surname, three or four years apart in age, who died about a week apart. (There was a horrible diphtheria epidemic around 1864.)

      Fifty graves — and all but ten were babies and children. That really brought it home to me, how much we gained by vaccines and antibiotics.

      • Any old cemetery is like that. When I did the teen summer program at the library, I took them to the town cemetery, and then we looked at death statistics from a certain era and I showed them how we could find evidence of a terrible Yellow Fever epidemic that had killed many of the folks in the same summer.

        • My grandmother lost one or more siblings to something going around–diphtheria or typhoid or something (not the Spanish flu), and she was born before the First World War. Then there’s the cousin to whom my mother often refers, who died of lockjaw.

          Was it SciShow on YouTube who had the video that discussed why European explorers had more diseases to give to natives of the New World than vice-versa–answer is domestic animals.

          • And there was give-and-take although it is rarely admitted. Syphilis was an import to Europe from the Americas, for instance.

            • Maybe not, since skeletons in Europe with apparent evidence of syphilitic damage have been found that predate the Columbian Exchange. The physical anthropologists and forensics people are still arguing over those, last I read.

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              No offense intended, but what besides Syphilis came from the Americans to Europe?

              I thought Syphilis was the only known disease that came from the Americas to Europe.

              • I did a quick Google* on the question “diseases crossing from america to europe” and it seems the research is entirely the other direction. Gee, I wonder why that might be?

                It seems unreasonable to imagine that the disease vectoring was strictly mono-directional, and it is likely that various parasites crossed cultural lines, as well. As for Syphilis, there may well have been different strains in each hemisphere, with those of one overcoming the resistance established by their opposite variant.

                *Other search engines may produce different results; this was merely a quick check for data abundance.

                • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                  Well, if we assume that most plagues came from herd animals and most (if not all) of the human herding cultures were in the Old World, that would explain the general one way trip of plagues to the New World.

                  • Although some plagues were a result of zoonosis, which still happens today (look at the diseases coming out of Asia and Africa recently) not all of them do. It’s far more likely that the relative isolation of the Americas from the European and Asian landmasses had something to do with the impact the cross-cultural microbiome had. RES is right, there has been little to no research on disease coming to Europe from the Americas, and as TXRed pointed out, even syphilis is debated. But we come back to food, I suspect. The Europeans were more able to resist new strains of disease due to a higher level of nutrition and that was a factor. Additionally, there may have been an epidemic that swept over the north American continent shortly before Columbus, you might want to look at a book called 1491 if you haven’t already seen it. It’s an interesting speculation.

                    • It occurs to me that some of the most virulent diseases human experience seem to be transmitted by avians, most especially ducks and geese. IIRC, the current theory on the origins of the Spanish Flu attribute it to the use of Chinese coolies to dig the trenches, and the Chinese habit of raising fowl in their rice paddies, defecating into the crops’ water.

                      As well, recent flu strains seem to have transmission via bird as a common vector. Whether the Amerindian cultures domesticated fowl is something of which I’ve no knowledge. Punching into the search engine indicates they kept guinea pigs and hamsters and the like but did not push far into the sources to evaluate the assertions.

                    • They did keep guinea pigs as livestock, and llama and alpaca, but I’m not sure that birds were among the stock until Chickens came – and chickens were originally Asian in origin.

                    • They had turkeys.

                    • Feather Blade

                      Weren’t hamsters a middle eastern rodent?

                      Or was that just the Golden Hamster?

                  • I did a quick look at the question of whether the Amerindians of Central America kept herd animals and found little information on the matter. I might have gotten better results from asking more specifically about the Mayans, Incas or Aztecs, but it struck me that those cultures practiced herding in a different manner, keeping large quantities of human slaves. Whether such would foster greater varieties of disease is, I guess, an open question.

                    One interesting comment in a Britannica article on Central American Amerindian customs pointed out that polygamy was quite common, especially amongst tribal chiefs. Observing that tracking descent matrilineally made evaluation of the frequency of such practice difficult, the article implied that such a practice might be the source of the wide-spread belief in the existence of female-dominant societies.

                    • Many tribes kept dogs for hauling and eating, and the Aztecs particularly. Other tribes used them more for hunting and waste disposal. The Inca kept guinea pigs for meat. Cannot think of any other examples.

                    • Llamas were about the largest domesticable animals in the Americas. Otherwise it was dogs, turkeys, guinea pigs.

                    • They’d already eaten the horses, mastodons and mammoths, and the North American versions of the guanacos. For some reason, they never tamed the reindeer, that only happened in far northern Asia and Europe.

                    • Llamas! How could I forget llamas! Llamas are awesome! Yes, those are definitely livestock.

                      But alpacas, they just let them run around on their own, wild, and then the whole village used to herd them together for shearing and share the fleeces. Sorta like “Pony Penning Day” in Chincoteague, or the way cattle used to be raised on the open range in the Old West (except without branding). Not really raising domestic animals at all.

            • I believe the video I was thinking of ascribed a New World origin to syphilis.

              • That was always the convention, because hard-core syphilis swept through Europe after 1492 and appeared to have started in places with a lot of contact with the New World. OTOH, ports are a great place to spread from (like the Black Death), and it could well be that (like Y. Pestis), the syphilis spyrochete had produced a milder version of the disease, or been transmitted differently, or had a different host and then mutated and Bam! people are losing their noses and other body parts to the [enemy country] Disease. Trust archaeologists to muddy the historian’s waters. 😉

        • Yep, about half of my grandparents siblings died in childhood from diseases we now have vaccinations for. Those that survived lived into their 90s, and in one case, 104. It’s the averages that make lifespans look short.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        And how much we’ll lose if we throw them away because vapid celebrities tell us to.

      • About 20 years ago I went to rural Georgia with my Dad, who was visiting relatives and grave sites.

        At the cemetaries I wandered around, and at each one, I noticed row after row of identical tombstones marked U.S. Army along with the individual names, all of them with the same date of death in 1943. Hundreds of tombstones.

        Best as I can figure it was one of the North Africa landings. An entire generation went off to war, and not enough of them came back. We went through several rural Georgia ghost towns, and a few that hadn’t quite shut down yet. All with rows and rows of identical stones in their cemetaries.

        • In Texas, the small towns started dying off after WW2 due to the better jobs available in the nearby cities and the very fast mechanization of agriculture after the war. Farmers had started mechanizing in the 1920’s, but the depression and WW2 delayed that until the late 1940’s. Before that, all successful farmers had to have at least one or two at least part time time employees to make a go of it, even when you include the surviving children. These farm workers made a decent living and constituted most of the population of these small communities. After the war, bigger and more automated equipment made these workers unnecessary, and they had to migrate to the cities to find work.

          • I’ll see if I can find the article in the Abilene Reporter-News in 1948 about a little rural school district that was consolidating with a larger nearby school district. It explained it very well.

            • Now if we could tattoo that explanation on the people who still say we need more mass immigration. Maybe then they would get that the economy is different.

          • I drive through West Texas (from Texline to either Spring, or over across the Louisiana border into Shreveport) every time I go visiting relatives. It’s a long drive, frequently through dozens of dying small towns. The reason they’re dying is multifaceted, and has everything to do from automation of the railroads to long-haul trucking to — as Joe mentioned — automated farming. Several have managed to survive by attracting and keeping small religious-based colleges (Clarendon), others by diversifying, others by being satellite towns, or the only town in XX miles. You can’t help but notice that the more diversified the town’s economic base, the richer the soil of the farms and ranches around it, and the better the transportation infrastructure, the more prosperous the people are. One good case in point: US 80 used to be the main drive between the central Southern states and West Texas. Today, I-10 has replaced it, and many of the towns along US 80 are ghost towns.

            • I-20; I-10 is further south along the coast.

            • My old hometown of Garden City is an outlier. The population of the town and county has not changed all that much in over 70 years. Back from 1910 to 1950, the main industry was ranching, then a minor oil boom drove up the population in the late 20’s, and it stayed pretty constant through the depression and WW2. Just as ranching was dying off, and lot of German-American vets used their GI bill benefits to buy large tracts of farmland from the breakup of two of the old large ranches in the southern part of the county in the late 1940’s. This land was excellent fairly deep (for West Texas) loam, great for cotton and grain, with excellent irrigating water from the Ogallala. Several hundred young vets from Wall/Olfen/Rowena/Miles moved iin and established the St. Lawrence community in the southern part of the county by 1950. I grew up with all their kids, as my dad ran a water well service business that dealt mostly with the St. Lawrence farmers. At least half their kids stuck around and became farmers, either breaking in new farms, or taking over the established family farms. At least a quarter of their grandkids have done the same, resulting in Garden City staying pretty constant in population. The 1970’s/80’s oil boom pushed population up a notch, but the resulting bust in the 90’s let it fall back to the 1960’s level.

              it’s amusing to read newspaper articles from Midland/Big Spring and see familiar family names of kids involved in high school sports. Still the same Hillger/Halfman/Schwartz/Jansa/Hoelscher bunch, except it is the grandkids of the ones I hung with back in the early 1970’s……..

            • In the last 30 years, I’ve seen several West Texas towns that played Class A 11 man football (high school attendance above 130-150 kids) drop to 6 man schools (less than 100) like Petersburg, McLean, Knox City, Lefors, Amherst, Marfa, and O’Donnell with a couple going to division 2 6 man (less than 50) Like Paducah, Robert Lee, and Throckmorton.

              Several more such as Goree, Estelline, Hobbs, Divide, Rochester, O’Brien, Darrouzett, and Megargel that still had schools in the 1970’s have lost so much population that the schools were merged with nearby (<50 miles in some cases) schools. After the oil bust in the late 80's, many oil companies closed their satellite offices/yards in these small towns, and during the latest boom (now busted), they did not re-open them, preferring to base themselves in the bigger cities and drive as much as 100 miles one-way to the booming rural oil fields.

    • I don’t remember the source, but I read that public works–clean water and some form of sewage disposal–was one of the major factors in lowering infant mortality and increasing adult life expectancy.

      IIRC, the book Parasite Rex goes into that in one or two of the later chapters. More in the sense of tracking sources of infestation/infection, though.

  11. If you care to read history for your own enjoyment, I’d suggest Charles C Mann’s “1493” — it deal with a lot of what you talked about here, and how until the potato and guano “revolutions” that the world was plagued by famines into the 1800’s, but that since then famine has been a distribution problem, rather than a supply problem. And of course there’s tons of other fascinating stuff. When talking about 1300’s China’s government and fiscal policy, it seemed as though all one needed to do was change a couple of place names and he’d have been talking about present-day USA. Plus ca change…..

  12. And parasites. We are used to getting all the nutrients from the food we eat, not just a half to 80%. No tapeworms, no pin worms, none of the other critters that the rest of the world knows all too well.

    • In my epidemiology class I did some research on the Ascaris worm and the effect it has on global population. I was rather startled to have my professor tell me it’s a good thing so many people die… But then again, the belief that we are overloading the world with people is another persistent parasitic load on the human population in its own way.

  13. “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.”

    They also had LONG postpartum taboos. At least, the current day ones do.

    • I thought as much but wasn’t sure. And it’s irrelevant to the ones who didn’t – the body just can’t sustain beyond the limits and a miscarriage would be the most likely result of pregnancy while still nursing and living on a subsistence diet.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        The Taboos could have started from the tribe seeing what happened to a woman trying to nurse one child while bearing another child.

        • And from women getting very grumpy at the men who were overeager 😀

        • If they were so close to the line that a woman could not conceive while lactating, they would never have had a chance to see.

          Anyway, studies find that current hunters and gatherers (except in the Artic) eat half or more of their food from plants. A woman who can’t gather because she can’t carry the kids is a serious issue.

          • The Other Sean

            I recall there were some interesting studies on age vs. yield in female gatherers. I don’t remember the exact ages, but in the remaining hunter-gatherer cultures, it took 25 years before a woman would begin gathering more calories than she consumed, and somewhere around 45 her yield declined above the break-even point again. This was part of why communal child-watching and various infant-carrying devices was particularly important. Older women could contribute directly with some gathering, but having them watch children and teach the younger women was also important.

            A note of caution: most hunter-gatherer societies at the times the studies were conducted were in marginal land, not those that are particularly abundant. The positive caloric contribution age range would likely be much broader in someplace abundant like a nice coast or rain forest.

            • [Mo]ost hunter-gatherer societies at the times the studies were conducted were in marginal land, not those that are particularly abundant.

              Another instance of Agrarian Privilege!

          • Apparently, men as hunters were significant mostly in areas (usually northern) where large ungulate grazers were the prey. Otherwise, men were primarily the protectors from predators / other bands of humans.

      • Some of them probably ate enough. Heck, in Japan and some other locations, the regions were so rich that there were sedentary hunters and gatherers. The taboo would work then — because the fundamental limit is that the next child can’t come along until the gatherer/mother no longer needs to carry the kid.

        • There are several coastal locations that show evidence of having so much food they could be lived on for generations. It’s a small fraction of areas, and that again limited population growth. Human nature being what it is, though, not having all the babies all the time was something I’m sure they figured out and hence the taboos.

          • Coastal locations offer access to abundant water-borne protein — although with net-fishing the importance of upper body strength would tend to eliminate most women from the work of repeatedly hauling in nets full of fish, so once again Patriarchy rears its ugly head, denying women the privilege of spending days on end asea in cramped quarters on rickety craft, using the sea for their toilet and riding out wild storms. Stupid men, hogging all the fun!

          • It also lets you create pottery, which is too heavy to lug about. Once you have pottery, you have a population explosion because of all the new food sources. You can boil foods to remove toxic substances. You can steam open shellfish. You can make mush for both babies (allowing earlier weaning) and toothless elderly.

          • The Other Sean

            One example of such an area is the Pacific Northwest, roughly from northern California to southern Alaska. As I understand, between the fish and shellfish along the coast and in the rivers, and what could be gathered or hunted in the lush rain forests, the tribes in that region were able to live quite well without agriculture. In fact, the level of abundance was sufficient to support semi-sedentary or even outright sedentary populations of some size.

            • As I recall from my long ago Anthropology minor, the Pacific Northwest is the place where the potlatch* was developed.

              “a ceremonial feast of the American Indians of the northwest coast marked by the host’s lavish distribution of gifts or sometimes destruction of property to demonstrate wealth and generosity with the expectation of eventual reciprocation” —
              (Emphasis added.)

              Sure sounds like an ostentatious display of wealth. One presumes that there were environmental barriers (e.g., mountains and streams) protecting them from encroaching tribal communities.

              I also recall being charmed by stories from the Indian subcontinent about a cultural practice in which feuding families would engage in ostentatious destruction of personal property, with one party going to the other’s property (e.g.,) and smashing a vase or slaughtering a goat as a way of saying “this is what I think of you!” with the other party responding by smashing a pair of vases or slaughtering two goats by way of communicating, “Oh yeah? Well, here’s my opinion of you” — the whole affair escalating until one party finally couldn’t/wouldn’t see the other’s raise.

              The slaughtered, as I recall, were distributed to the community poor.

              Frankly, I find the idea too amusing to confirm.

              • The potlatch is a fascinating custom. My grandmother in her book about Slavery among the Pacific Northwestern tribes describes the custom and how outrageous it could get, because it was a display of wealth and power among those people.

                • They probably picked this up from the Hobbits of Isla Flores before wandering around the litorals by boat and winding up in the PNW. Hobbits gave gifts on their birthdays.

                • I remember reading about it when we studied Marvin Harris in Theories of Anthropology. And it was then I finally learned how to spell “Kwakiutl”.

              • Sure sounds like an ostentatious display of wealth

                It appears to have been. When I was in high school (I think), I visited a local museum specializing in Pacific Northwest tribes as part of a school thing (I don’t remember the details). Pretty much the only thing about the trip that I remember is one of the museum guides talking about the potlatch, how it was basically a chance to show off wealth, began to get overly ostentatious, and eventually started to cause scarcity issues as people were driven to destroy more and more stuff in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses”.

  14. Excess Food and excess Energy are the foundations of advanced civilization. You can’t have one without both. Right now, we do not have much excess energy, and are apparently in an energy decline as we have less and less each year. If this trend is not reversed, our civilization will collapse.
    Also, in California the government has been doing it’s best to stamp out excess Food production, and have succeeded by cutting California’s Food production by a shockingly large amount.
    Again, another factor that will lead to our collapse unless someone does something, and soon. Many of the farms that were destroyed will take decades to replace.

    • We are in an energy decline only because energy taboos are reducing our willingness and ability to harvest. Otherwise we are able to develop and exploit energy far more efficiently than ever before.

      • The current subsidies for corn alcohol fuels, wind turbines and PV panels will also be repealed as the feds and states run out of money. Thank God that natural gas will be plentiful and can pick up the slack fairly quickly and cheaply. It will cause major problems when the libs try to run electricity prices up to German levels.

        • You curiously left out coal. The US alone has more coal than we can use (at even 1.5 times today’s rate) for the next 700-800 years. It’s not cost-effective or safe to mine coal in some parts of southern Colorado, so it’s being mined for methane with many, many gas wells.

          Nuclear power capabilities have surged over th past 50 years, yet no nuclear power plant has been allowed to be built in 30 years, and many of the existing ones shut down. Thorium reactors are cheap, efficient, and safe, yet the Luddites won’t even hear of them being put in use.

          We don’t have an energy problem, we have a political problem.

    • The longest timeline for replacing those farms is replacing the well educated farmers that make modern American agriculture possible. You will not be able to take Mexican/Syrian/South American peasants and be able to reproduce our results very quickly. Hell, it would take time even with European farmers.

      I expect the problems in California to come to a massive head in less than 5 years, probably as a result of a state debt default, either in response to, or a result of a similar default by Illinois. The coastal elites will have reality slap them hard in their gated communities……

      • Why do you say European? It was my understanding in some ways (increased mechanization of harvests due to smaller cheap labor pools) European farmers are more modernized than the US. I can believe they are behind in others (people respond to local conditions and incentives) but I’d expect it to be a wash.

        • I’m not sure how advanced they are, but farming isn’t a widget sort of thing— different areas have radically different requirements, and the European ones would have to repeat all the same mistakes.

    • There is also the fact that California is the source of much of the country’s food, produce in particular. There has been some switch over in my home state to food crops as tobacco fell out of favor, but not enough, yet, to replace California’s acreage.

      • Yup. Problems in California’s Central Valley can seriously screw over the rest of the country. And the government seems to be doing its best to destroy California’s farms.

        The drought that we’re currently having isn’t helping things, either.

        (though LA County got *hammered* by rain today; hopefully that’s a good sign)

        • Isn’t a lot of produce grown in Texas and Florida?

          • The Central Valley isn’t the only place in the US that edible crops are grown. But it’s probably the single most important.

            From the Wikipedia article on the valley –

            “The Central Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions.[2] More than 230 crops are grown there.[2] On less than 1 percent of the total farmland in the United States, the Central Valley produces 8 percent of the nation’s agricultural output by value: 17 billion USD in 2002. Its agricultural productivity relies on irrigation from both surface water diversions and groundwater pumping from wells. About one-sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in the Central Valley.[27]

            Virtually all non-tropical crops are grown in the Central Valley, which is the primary source for a number of food products throughout the United States, including tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, apricots, and asparagus.[28]

            There are 6,000 almond growers that produce more than 1.9 billion pounds a year, about 90 percent of the world’s supply.[29]

            The top four counties in agricultural sales in the U.S. are in the Central Valley (2007 Data). They are Fresno County (#1 with $3.731 billion in sales), Tulare County (#2 with $3.335 billion), Kern County (#3 with $3.204), and Merced County (#4 with $2.330 billion).[3][30]”

            • Sacramento is doing its level best to fix that problem, in part by making sure the Delta Smelt never has to deal with low-water periods in their rivers.

              Let’s ignore the fact that most California streams and rivers roughly south of Sacramento-San Francisco have pretty much always shown huge variation in flow rates and levels throughout each year.

              And yet the smelt soldiered on nevertheless.

              • yes, but now that the state assembly has mandated what the water level will be, it will stay that way, because they can mandate the weather!

                • Well, of course, there was no variance of water level or weather before white Europeans showed up. The world was static and pure.

  15. A fascinating look at the rise of government. Freedom and Domination by A. Rustow . I have a Princeton Press english translation of the 1955 German. History Culture and Anthropology as driven by the repeated migration of Herders west into farming cultures and the resulting class structures and how they evolved. The key factor is the resemblance of the tools of herders to the tools of war the tools of farmers not so much.

    • Herders, at least according to the pop anthropology I read a few decades ago, tend to be much more aggressive in protecting their wealth — which makes sense when you consider virtually everything they own is at risk of being stolen or simply driven off any given night. Farmers, OTOH, tend to enjoy far lower levels of wealth insecurity. As a result, herder cultures have their myths of the herder hunting for months the rascals who stole his herd, pursuing them across harsh terrain and exacting terrible vengeance. Thus they tend to be more aggressive in defending their reputations and honour.

    • Pruning hooks into spears and plowshares into swords. Actually, farmers could convert tools into weapons, if they had metalsmiths – remember the Peleset had an enforced monopoly on blacksmiths so that the Israelites could not have iron weapons.

  16. The idea that early humans grazed is daft on its face if you know anything about herbivore digestive systems vs. our own. Aren’t kids taking biology anymore?

    The only comparable animal I’m aware of that switched to an all grass diet is the Giant Panda, and if they hadn’t also evolved to be cute enough to be tourist attractions for the Chinese govt. they would have been a Darwinian footnote ages ago.

    • Based on the various sexes and dietary nonsense from the marginally benin (vegans trying to feed their cat vegan) to the insane (the 70 odd gender options on Facebook) it is fairly obvious that a significant portion of the population, tons of whom probably “Love f*cking science” have a knowledge of biology that would make an old fishwife shake her head.

  17. So this guy sees an ice cream truck driving down the street with its chimes ringing. He runs after it and the truck driver stops.

    “What can I get you?” the driver asks.

    “Nothing, the man replied, I just stopped you to tell you that I’m a Vegan.”

  18. Lactose tolerance probably helped the West as well. Research has shown that it’s a mutation that appears to have been much more common in the West than elsewhere. The ability to get a little extra nutrition just from milking Bessie the female herd mammal every morning must have provided a helpful boost, particularly during lean times.

    • Not to mention the terrific morale boost that was engendered by the subsequent invention of cheese.

    • Perhaps it is a result of being both lactose-intolerant *and* allergic, but the whole milk/cheese thing is pretty gross.

      There’s a lot of “national cuisine” which might have once been food before someone poured poison all over it.

    • The adult lactose tolerance gene first appeared in Turkey and spread like wildfire from there — faster than they had realized genes could spread.

      The thing is, if you milk the cow in Turkey and leave the milk alone for a bit, you have yogurt, which is much better for the intolerant; they had, in fact, done diarying for a millennium, making butter and cheese and yogurt to solve their problem.

      So why was drinking milk a bit fresher so much of an advantage?

  19. That Bastard Rousseau strikes again. Funny how this sort of pastoral nonsense tends to emanate from pampered urbanites.

    Additionally, the assumption that HG societies are more caring and peaceful is extra silly. People on the constant edge of starvation tend to be a bit more callous and harsh by necessity. Thus, you find that they aren’t too happy with other clans trying to grab that nice little valley with the clean water and lots of game- and will fight to move that lot out. Likewise, if granny can’t keep up… sorry, but that’s just how it goes.

    • Two things to do with access to a time machine:

      1). go kick Rousseau in the gonads for coming up with this “noble savage” B.S.

      2). tell James Madison that “Militia clause” on the Second Amendment is going to cause more trouble than it’s worth.

  20. Ah yes, modern college textbooks on pre-1500s world history. Just wait until you get to the “accumulation of wealth has been the cause of all wars throughout history” part.

    The Gramscian damage that has been inflicted upon our education system is probably the most damning to our culture.

    • I’ve read what was supposed to be intelligent commentary that stated that the entire world of banking — debts, loaning money at interest, bank drafts — were invented by the Venetians around 1400 to enslave mankind in the name of capitalism.
      As though the classical Romans had no economy and would spend one hundred denari for bread one day, and one denari for bread the next, and treat the difference in prices as some possibly interesting but ultimately unsolvable mystery.
      The weird thing about economics is that it is one of the humanities — it is based upon human values — but unlike the rest of the humanities it is the same for everyone, Chinamen and Aztecs alike. If you spend 0.99 to get 1.00 of value you prosper, if you spend 1.00 to get 0.99 of value you fail miserably, and faster than you would think possible.

      • The weird thing about the humanities is that the only branch of the humanities which is the same for everyone, from Aztecs to Zulus, is the one they respect the least.

  21. When you read literature that describes how people lived before 1900 or so, hunger is the greatest danger and family politics is the greatest gambit. The amount of time an average worker had to put in on the job to feed himself, badly and cheaply, was incredible. Imagine working four to six hours at back breaking labor for 2000 calories of plain bread and peas. A whole chicken on Sunday was a middle-class treat. Breakfast was the stale bread from the day before. In England, a century and a half ago, an hour’s labor bought you a pint of cheap beer. Thanks to Robin Hood, we think of poachers as taking the king’s deer, but most poachers took rabbits and game birds.

    • Thus, FDR’s campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot.”

      • I pointed out to a vegan once that the reason we eat so much meat in our culture is because once upon a time being able to eat meat on a regular basis was a sign of wealth, so in some Jungian collective consciousness sort of way it still triggers that response in people.

        (I left out the part that it also tastes good.)

      • That was Hoover, actually.

        • I’ve never been as good at history as I’d like to be. I’d have been safe if I’d only said, “Thus the one-time presidential campaign slogan.”

          I’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those kids! Then again, if they remember that kind of history, they’re likely not kids 🙂

    • Thanks to Robin Hood, we think of poachers as taking the king’s deer, but most poachers took rabbits and game birds.

      Collecting firewood from the King’s Forest was also a crime; at a time when wood fires were the sole source of heat.

      • The era that saw the decline of witch hunts also saw a massive increase in accusations of wood-stealing.

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