Twelve thousand years ago everybody lived as hunters and gatherers. But by 5,000 years ago most people lived as farmers.
This brief period marked the biggest shift ever in human history with unparalleled changes in diet, culture and technology, as well as social, economic and political organisation, and even the patterns of disease people suffered.
While there were upsides and downsides to the invention of agriculture, was it the greatest blunder in human history? Three decades ago Jarred Diamond thought so, but was he right?
Agriculture developed worldwide within a single and narrow window of time: between about 12,000 and 5,000 years ago. But as it happens it wasn’t invented just once but actually originated at least seven times, and perhaps 11 times, and quite independently, as far as we know.
Farming was invented in places like the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the Yangzi and Yellow River Basins of China, the New Guinea highlands, in the Eastern USA, Central Mexico and South America, and in sub-Saharan Africa.
And while its impacts were tremendous for people living in places like the Middle East or China, its impacts would have been very different for the early farmers of New Guinea.
The reasons why people took up farming in the first place remain elusive, but dramatic changes in the planet’s climate during the last Ice Age — from around 20,000 years ago until 11,600 years ago — seem to have played a major role in its beginnings.
The invention of agriculture thousands of years ago led to the domestication of today’s major food crops like wheat, rice, barley, millet and maize, legumes like lentils and beans, sweet potato and taro, and animals like sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, alpacas and chickens.
It also dramatically increased the human carrying capacity of the planet. But in the process the environment was dramatically transformed. What started as modest clearings gave way to fields, with forests felled and vast tracts of land turned over to growing crops and raising animals.
In most places the health of early farmers was much poorer than their hunter-gatherer ancestors because of the narrower range of foods they consumed alongside of widespread dietary deficiencies.
At archaeological sites like Abu Hereyra in Syria, for example, the changes in diet accompanying the move away from hunting and gathering are clearly recorded. The diet of Abu Hereyra’s occupants dropped from more than 150 wild plants consumed as hunter-gatherers to just a handful of crops as farmers.
In the Americas, where maize was domesticated and heavily relied upon as a staple crop, iron absorption was consequently low and dramatically increased the incidence of anaemia. While a rice based diet, the main staple of early farmers in southern China, was deficient in protein and inhibited vitamin A absorption.
There was a sudden increase in the number of human settlements signalling a marked shift in population. While maternal and infant mortality increased, female fertility rose with farming, the fuel in the engine of population growth.
The planet had supported roughly 8 million people when we were only hunter-gatherers. But the population exploded with the invention of agriculture climbing to 100 million people by 5,000 years ago, and reaching 7 billion people today.
People began to build settlements covering more than ten hectares – the size of ten rugby fields – which were permanently occupied. Early towns housed up to ten thousand people within rectangular stone houses with doors on their roofs at archaeological sites like Çatalhöyük in Turkey.
By way of comparison, traditional hunting and gathering communities were small, perhaps up to 50 or 60 people.
Crowded conditions in these new settlements, human waste, animal handling and pest species attracted to them led to increased illness and the rapid spread of infectious disease.
Today, around 75% of infectious diseases suffered by humans are zoonoses, ones obtained from or more often shared with domestic animals. Some common examples include influenza, the common cold, various parasites like tapeworms and highly infectious diseases that decimated millions of people in the past such as bubonic plague, tuberculosis, typhoid and measles.
In response, natural selection dramatically sculpted the genome of these early farmers. The genes for immunity are over-represented in terms of the evidence for natural selection and most of the changes can be timed to the adoption of farming. And geneticists suggest that 85% of the disease-causing gene variants among contemporary populations arose alongside the rise and spread of agriculture.
In the past, humans could only tolerate lactose during childhood, but with the domestication of dairy cows natural selection provided northern European farmers and pastoralist populations in Africa and West Asia the lactase gene. It’s almost completely absent elsewhere in the world and it allowed adults to tolerate lactose for the first time.
Starch consumption is also feature of agricultural societies and some hunter-gatherers living in arid environments. The amylase genes, which increase people’s ability to digest starch in their diet, were also subject to strong natural selection and increased dramatically in number with the advent of farming.
Another surprising change seen in the skeletons of early farmers is a smaller skull especially the bones of the face. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had larger skulls due to their more mobile and active lifestyle including a diet which required much more chewing.
Smaller faces affected oral health because human teeth didn’t reduce proportionately to the smaller jaw, so dental crowding ensued. This led to increased dental disease along with extra cavities from a starchy diet.
Living in densely populated villages and towns created for the first time in human history private living spaces where people no longer shared their food or possessions with their community.
These changes dramatically shaped people’s attitudes to material goods and wealth. Prestige items became highly sought after as hallmarks of power. And with larger populations came growing social and economic complexity and inequality and, naturally, increasing warfare.
Inequalities of wealth and status cemented the rise of hierarchical societies — first chiefdoms then hereditary lineages which ruled over the rapidly growing human settlements.
Eventually they expanded to form large cities, and then empires, with vast areas of land taken by force with armies under the control of emperors or kings and queens.
This inherited power was the foundation of the ‘great’ civilisations that developed across the ancient world and into the modern era with its colonial legacies that are still very much with us today.
No doubt the bad well and truly outweighs all the good that came from the invention of farming all those millenia ago. Jarred Diamond was right, the invention of agriculture was without doubt the biggest blunder in human history. But we’re stuck with it, and with so many mouths to feed today we have to make it work better than ever. For the future of humankind and the planet.
In 1866, Adelaide colonist George Hamilton published An Appeal for the Horse, arguing against the harsh treatment of animals. He claimed that in “treating [the horse] as a machine, [people] have forgotten the higher attributes of his nature, and considered only his bone and muscle”.
Hamilton was a trailblazer in challenging the cruel treatment of animals by humans. He loved horses better than many people, and frequently likened them to children, wives, or friends. Although Australian anti-cruelty laws were passed as early as 1837, more specific prohibitions against cruelty to animals were not introduced until the 1860s. Hamilton’s challenge to the boundary we have constructed between humans and animals anticipated considerable recent research that questions this divide.
In contrast, Hamilton’s compassion for Aboriginal people was conspicuously lacking. Empathy is always politicised, and emotional narratives such as Hamilton’s tell us whose lives are worthy of compassion and therefore valuable.
In 1839, on a journey droving 350 head of cattle from Port Philip to Adelaide, Hamilton had a tense confrontation with two Aboriginal men, in which he drew and cocked his pistol, ready to fire. The moment passed, and as he later explained:
Although it was my intention to fire upon my black relations, it was with no desire to kill them. No … they would have been merely winged, shot through the leg or arm, or in some place not vital.
Hamilton contrasted his willingness to harm, if not kill, Aboriginal people with what he saw as the hypocrisy of those “pious persons” who cared more about “ignorant pagan black monsters” than “their white brethren who are, from poverty, neglect and vicious teaching, fast falling into a savagedom far more frightful”. Like many at this time, he pitted the rights of Indigenous people against those of poor whites, whether in Britain or in the colonies.
Picturing colonial violence
As an “overlander” who helped “open up” land routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide during the years from 1836 to 1845, Hamilton was a veteran of frontier conflict. His fine-grained narratives and carefully observed drawings and prints provide a valuable insight into the story of white settlement in South Australia.
In 1845 Hamilton wrote:
The black man who roams over these wilds their lord and master is little elevated by nature from the beasts that inhabit his native forests, so far beneath the rest of his species that he seems to be standing on the line of demarcation between instinct and reason.
It seems that humans have always needed to elevate ourselves in contrast to those who are radically different – the “other” – whether that be animals, non-white races or women. This process was fundamental to imperialism and, more often than not, it was violent.
There is a shift in Hamilton’s views from his first forays into the bush around 1836 to his late-19th-century reminiscences. Some of his early drawings, such as “Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836”, express a friendly curiosity, offering many details of material culture and exchange between white travellers and local Aboriginal people.
But after the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838 in north-western New South Wales, colonists became more circumspect regarding frontier clashes with Aboriginal people. Following this massacre, seven white men were hanged for the murder of 28 Wererai people, outraging white colonists and increasing racial tensions over subsequent decades. Recent research by Lyndall Ryan documents the sites where thousands of Aboriginal people and tens of settlers were killed in south-east Australia.
During the 1840s, Hamilton began to produce less sympathetic images, including many drawings and prints depicting frontier violence. These sometimes showed conflict in relatively objective terms, such as his ink drawing “Overlanders Attacking the Natives”.
Even “Natives Spearing the Overlanders’ Cattle”, while showing Aboriginal people as aggressors, remains relatively neutral.
But a series of lithographs from the late 1840s have a nastier edge, losing their quality of realist observation and descending into caricature. These show Aboriginal people attacking white colonists, with ironic titles such as “The Harmless Natives”, or “The Persecuting White Men”. Here Hamilton directs our sympathy from black to white.
As Hamilton’s legacy shows us, emotional narratives and images are a powerful way of defining our relations with others.
This process is also fundamental to modern global warfare, as Judith Butler argues in her analysis of war journalism. It can be seen at work wherever interests compete. For Hamilton, Aboriginal people’s defence of kin and country challenged his own right to colonise and posed a personal threat. This made it easy for him to demonise Aboriginal people.
On the violent frontier, Hamilton was typical in defining the white colonist as victim and Indigenous Australian as persecutor, declaring in 1845:
We may soon look forward to the time when murders perpetrated by the savage on the settler will be considered something more than a peccadillo, and we may hope to see the settler at liberty to protect his life and property without the fear of escaping the blacks’ tomahawk only to run his neck in the hangman’s noose.
Here we see the emotional logic of Hamilton’s imperial cultural hierarchy and his political deployment of compassion. Suddenly, the seeming incongruity of Hamilton’s scorn for threatening Aboriginal people alongside his sympathy for the faithful horse makes perfect sense.
Jane Lydon will explore Hamilton’s life and works in a lecture at the University of Adelaide on October 18.
For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.
The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.
Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.
Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.
This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.
Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern-day sport and sporting culture”.
At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary video-game culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A video-game spin-off from the exhibition is easy to imagine.
Rogues not heroes
Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.
These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.
These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, executions of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.
The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, this analogy causes more problems than it solves.
The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.
Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).
The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.
At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.
Gods and monsters
Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works, which deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.
Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.
The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the executions of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.
The executions of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.
Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seemed far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.
For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.
One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?
She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.
Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.
Most of the voters who will be casting their ballots in the general election on Thursday June 8 will take their right to do so for granted, unaware of the contested history of this now familiar action. It’s actually less than 100 years since all adult males in the UK were awarded the franchise for parliamentary elections, in 1918, in the wake of World War I. That right wasn’t extended to all adult women for a further ten years after that.
Even today, it might be argued, the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” has not been fully implemented, since the royal family and members of the House of Lords are not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. And even after the mass enfranchisement of the early 20th century, university graduates and owners of businesses retained a double vote, the former in their university constituencies as well as where they lived. These privileges were only abolished in 1948, in face of overwhelming Conservative opposition.
How Britain votes today is also a relatively late development in electoral history. Until 1872, parliamentary electors cast their votes orally, sometimes in front of a crowd, and these choices were then published in a poll book. Public voting was often a festive, even riotous affair. Problems of intimidation were widespread, and sanctions might be applied by landlords and employers if voters failed to follow their wishes, though this was widely accepted at the time as the “natural” state of affairs.
Open voting even had its defenders, notably the political radical John Stuart Mill, who regarded it as a manly mark of independence.
But as the franchise was partially extended in the 19th century, the campaign for secrecy grew. The method that was eventually adopted was borrowed from Australia, where the use of polling booths and uniform ballot papers marked with an “X” was pioneered in the 1850s.
More recent reforms took place in 1969, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Party emblems were also allowed on the ballot paper for the first time that year. It’s this kind of paper that will be used on June 8.
Staying at home
What no one predicted, however, when these franchise and balloting reforms were first implemented, is that voters would simply not bother to turn out and that they would abstain in such considerable numbers.
To be sure, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, turnout for much of the 20th century at general elections remained high, even by European standards. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved slightly. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%. But the fact remains that, today, a massive one-third of those eligible to vote fail to do so, preferring instead to stay at home (and the situation in local elections is far worse).
What was a regular habit for a substantial majority of the electorate has now become a more intermittent practice. Among the young and marginalised, non-voting has become widely entrenched. Greater personal mobility and the decline of social solidarity has made the decision to vote a more individual choice, which may or may not be exercised according to specific circumstances, whereas in the past it was more of a duty to be fulfilled.
Voters rarely spoil their papers in the UK, whereas in France it is a traditional form of protest that has reached epidemic proportions: some 4m ballot papers were deliberately invalidated in the second round of the recent presidential election. Like the rise in abstention in both countries, it surely reflects disenchantment with the electoral process as well as disappointment with the political elite.
In these circumstances, the idea of compulsory voting has re-emerged, though in liberal Britain the idea of forcing people to the polling station has never exerted the same attraction as on the continent. The obligation to vote is a blunt instrument for tackling a complex political and social problem. When the interest of the electorate is fully engaged, as in the recent Scottish or EU referendums, then turnout can still reach the 75% to 80% mark.
However, in the forthcoming parliamentary election, following hard on the heels of its predecessor in 2015, the EU vote and elections to regional assemblies in 2016, plus the local elections in May, voter fatigue may take a toll. It’s hard to envisage more than two-thirds of those entitled to do so casting their ballot on June 8. Given the relatively small cost involved in conducting this civic act, which is the product of so much historical endeavour, such disaffection must be a cause for significant concern.