= From Hunting to Agriculture



From Hunting to Agriculture

Territorial Expansion

From around 50,000 years ago (only about two thousand generations ago) human populations expanded rapidly and filled more and more of the world. The growing tribes, equipped with new weapons and employing large-scale co-operative hunting and defensive methods, were probably able increasingly to hunt and kill any animal, however big, and keep their children safe from any predator, however clever and powerful. Each tribe, held together by common cultural, linguistic and political bonds, typically occupied and defended a territory against neighbouring tribes. As populations grew, the need for more food led to attempts at territorial expansion and hence to warfare.

There seems no reason to doubt that people have always been territorial and no doubt the bipeds were territorial before them. Where there is territoriality, there will be disputes. Disputes between individuals and nuclear families seldom lead to bloodshed; disputes between larger groups or tribes generally do.

Humans occupy and defend territories at two levels: the level of the individual family and the level of the larger community, tribe or state. At the family level, there will be occasional arguments over fences, but lethal conflict between neighbouring families is unusual. Biologists agree that individual animal families are equally restrained:

Territorial animals defend areas that contain a nest, den or mating site and sufficient food resources for themselves and their young. Defense rarely takes the form of overt fights: more usually there is a highly noticeable display, which may be visual (as in the red breast of the robin), auditory (as in much bird song, or the calls of gibbons) or olfactory, through the deposit of scent marks.

(Wikipedia: Territoriality)

Nevertheless when disputes arise between larger communities (whether human or animal) occupying adjacent territories, bloodshed is the rule rather than the exception:

The facts recovered by ethnographers and archaeologists indicate unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilised version. War is hell whether it is fought with wooden spears or napalm. Peaceful prestate societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime. As we have seen, the very deadly ambushes, raids and surprise attacks on settlements were the forms of combat preferred by tribal warriors to the less deadly, but much more complicated battles so important in civilised warfare. In fact, primitive warfare was much more deadly than that conducted between civilised states because of the greater frequency of combat and the more merciless way it was conducted.

(Keeley War before Civilization P174)

Rather similar lethal conflict occurs also between communities of chimpanzees:

A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise…When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. (See links)

Thus there is a contrast between territorial conflict between pairs or nuclear families, which seldom shed blood, and territorial conflict between larger groups, which often do, and may involve actual massacres. Perhaps this is because the balance sheet of conflict is different. Conflicts between families seldom reach the point of actual fighting, because the risk of injury is not worth the possible gain in territory; threats cost nothing, and may intimidate the opponent; actual fighting will probably leave both parties weaker and less able to find food.

But when larger groups come into conflict, the risks of death are typically taken only by young males. Of course even if territory is gained, some of them may be killed and others injured; but in tribal terms, it may be worth it. Young warriors are to some degree expendable. Female numbers may be unaffected; the birth rate (given some polygamy) may be unaffected; food gathering efficiencies by females at least will also be unaffected and territorial gain may make food-gathering easier.

Colonisation and the Destruction of the Megafauna

As individual tribes increased in numbers, territories expanded in the direction of least resistance. Tribes occupying coastal territories vigorously resisted encroachment from inland neighbours, having nowhere else to go; the inland neighbours therefore moved further inland, until the habitable parts of Africa and Eurasia which could provide a good supply of food were progressively filled. Finally, some tribes in coastal territories which had developed fishing and had made boats, under pressure from inland, ventured further out to sea in search of new lands to occupy.

People reached Australia around 40,000 years ago. At that time, western Indonesia was joined to Asia and New Guinea was joined to Australia. There was still a significant sea crossing, including one island-hop of over 50 miles, but they survived it, and colonised an isolated world occupied by a wide variety of large marsupials. Many of the marsupials were considerably bigger than those still living in Australia today; but by comparison with the elephants and other giant mammals of Africa and Eurasia, they were much smaller and less intelligent and must have been far more vulnerable to human hunting.

They were probably very easy prey. Just how animals can behave when they have no previous experience of bipedal predation is vividly suggested by Darwin's experience in the Galapagos:

The animals and birds were not used to human intruders and were very trusting in their behaviour. For the Beagle men it was almost like entering a Garden of Eden. Darwin rode a tortoise, caught an iguana by its tail and came so close to a hawk that he could push it off a bough with his gun..

Janet Browne: The Origin of Species: a Biography

Darwin himself summarises his thoughts on the "tameness" of the Galapagos birds, compared with elsewhere:

In regard to the wildness of birds towards man, there is no way of accounting for it, except as an inherited habit: comparatively few young birds, in any one year, have been injured by man in England, yet almost all, even young nestlings, are afraid of him; many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been pursued and injured by man, yet have not yet learned a salutary dread of him. We may infer from these facts, what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger's craft or power.

Darwin: Journal of Researches during the Voyage of HMS Beagle

In Australia, man was that new beast of prey. The effect of human arrival in Australia was dramatic. All the giant marsupials disappeared not long after the arrival of human hunters. It seems likely that Australia was the first major continental area in which humans became the dominant species and were able to take control over their environment. If Australia had contained food plants suitable for cultivation, it might have become the birthplace of agriculture and perhaps of civilization.

Since people now had boats, many other extinctions probably also took place on large and small islands during the same period. In the continental Old World, the megafauna was far more formidable and animal populations had had several million years to adapt to the dangers posed by bipeds; changes were at first less dramatic. The destruction of large animals took longer. But by 15,000 years ago, organised humans, now increasingly equipped with hafted spears and later with new weapons like the spear-thrower and the bow, had caused widespread extinctions everywhere. Elephants and mammoths, rhinos and woolly rhinos, wild horses, giant deer, hippos, musk oxes and the sabretooths which had preyed on them suddenly (in a few thousand years) disappeared from Europe.

The most dramatic effects were felt in America, colonised quite recently (probably less than 15,000 years ago) when weapons and hunting techniques were already highly developed. Glaciation reduced sea levels and for a time, a land bridge existed between Siberia and Alaska. Animals came across from Siberia and colonised first the bridge and then America. People came over at about the same time: perhaps following the game, perhaps fishing further and further along the coast in their boats. Perhaps they even crossed the narrow northern Pacific a little earlier.

The newly discovered American continents were uncolonised and unhunted. They were inhabited by an immense range of animals, including many members of the elephant family, camels, wild horses, giant beavers and ground sloths. These animals were preyed upon by predators including sabertooths, scimitartooths and cheetahs. Human predation was unknown to them. Within a few thousand years of the arrival of humans, two things had happened. The human population of America had expanded to fill both continents, down to the tip of South America. And all the big animals listed above - and many more, together with the predators which preyed upon them - had become extinct (see link) .

Hunting has always been, for men, a sport as well as (sometimes) a source of food. We do not know how the hunters reacted to their new situation of power and plenty. Did they conserve the game, once they had all the food they needed? Or like a British landowner shooting his pheasants - or like a fox in the henhouse - did they slaughter far more than they needed, for the sheer joy of it? In the case of the elephants, there was another reason why slaughter may have exceeded what was needed for food. Ivory had already (as we have seen at Sungir) become a useful and valued material.

But the great age of hunting could not last. After America, there was little further scope for human territorial expansion. Animal numbers must have declined dramatically. The more vulnerable prey animals, once extinct, were no longer available for food. Everywhere, human populations must have grown rapidly until the game became harder and harder to find. Everywhere there is likely to have been a sudden collision between expanding populations and declining resources of food. As growing tribes of hunters followed diminishing supplies of game, tribes fought one another for territory and hunting rights. Accustomed to a meat diet which was now often unobtainable, spending more and more of their energy in fighting other human competition rather than hunting game, people sometimes took to cannibalism (see link).

In the period which followed, all kinds of new food resources were explored. People living by rivers and on the coast devised new means of catching fish in quantity. In north-west Europe, excavation has suggested that communities existed for whom the hazelnut harvest was a major source of food (see link). But hazelnuts never became a long-term solution to the imbalance between population and food supply. No satisfactory solution emerged until cereal cultivation became the norm. And with elephants and other large animals now less of a problem, settled cultivation was now possible.


The transition to agriculture has always been hard to explain. Why should people have given up an enjoyable lifestyle and a varied diet and adopted lifestyles and diets which were often very tedious and limited? In the words of Mark Nathan Cohen "the adoption of agriculture probably resulted in an increased per-capita work load and a decline in the quality of the diet".

Pre-agricultural peoples had a varied diet and their food-gathering activities must often have been satisfying for their own sake. The "hunter-gatherers" were after all using their mental and physical resources for the purposes for which they were intended by nature. Their lives were sometimes short, but they were probably happy. By contrast agriculture, particularly before the employment of draft animals, involved a great deal of mechanical back-breaking toil. Food preparation was hard work also, given that cereals had to be ground by hand. And the final result, for most people, was a monotonous staple diet and not much else. Why did people adopt agriculture?

The answer seems to be very simple: expanding human populations meant that they had no choice. Cohen's book explains the only possible reason why humanity embarked on the agricultural revolution: agriculture yields more calories per hectare; it was the only way that the available land could be made to yield sufficient food to feed its human population:

Hunting and gathering is an extremely successful mode of adaptation for small human groups, it is not well adapted for the support of large or dense human populations. I suggest therefore that the development of agriculture was an adjustment which human populations were forced to make in response to their own increasing numbers. By approximately 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, hunters and gatherers, living on a limited range of preferred foods, had by natural population increase and concomitant territorial expansion fully occupied those portions of the globe which would support their lifestyle with reasonable ease. By that time, in fact, they had already found it necessary in many areas to broaden the range of wild resources used for food in order to feed growing populations. I suggest that after that time, with territorial expansion becoming increasingly difficult and unattractive as a means of adjusting to growing population, they were forced to become even more eclectic in their food-gathering, to eat more and more unpalatable foods, and in particular to concentrate on foods of low trophic level and high density. In the period between 9000 and 2000 B.P. populations throughout the world, already using nearly the full range of available palatable foods., were forced to adjust to further increases in population by artificially increasing, not those resources which they preferred to eat, but those which responded well to human attention and could be made to produce the greatest number of edible calories per unit of land.

(Cohen, Mark Nathan: The Food Crisis in Prehistory)


Cohen successfully presents the case that agriculture was a natural extension of techniques already in use to increase the yield of natural resources; it was not ignorance, but lack of need, that previously prevented people from practising it. Agriculture did not make for an easy life and did not immediately result in more acceptable food; its only advantage was that that it produced more food per unit of land and so enabled the same area to support more people.

Human populations worldwide formed a territorial network covering the entire habitable land-mass of the world; further population could no longer be accomodated by wider human dispersion. There was pressure on resources throughout the land-mass, and where local conditions permitted it, more intensive land-use was the only possible answer. That is why agricultural societies appeared at about the same time is several widely scattered locations.

Ways were to be found to make unpalatable foods more acceptable. But dense agricultural populations living on limited diets became more liable to disease. Repetitive strain injuries must have become the normal lot of people engaged in constant mechanical work. And not everybody adjusted equally well to the work ethic. History shows that those who adjusted less well sometimes adopted what seemed to them like a more attractive alternative - to live on the toil of others.

Wherever a peaceful people under enlightened leadership had settled down to the routine of agriculture, they would have been a continual temptation to their less settled neighbours. Denied the pleasure of hunting animals for a living, many men and many tribes of men preferred to turn their weapons against other men and to attempt, with varying success, to obtain by robbery, conquest and enslavement what they they were unwilling to work for.

Often the restless outsiders, sweeping down from the steppe or the desert (or like the Vikings, from the Northern seas) conquered the agriculturists, reduced them to subjection, took over their land and became a ruling aristocracy. Often (like the Normans in England) they set aside some of their conquered land as a game reserve, where they could escape from the disagreeable realities of agriculture and recreate the golden age of hunting.

Making use of their pooled resources of intelligence and experience, people had expanded to the limits of the world. They now totally dominated their environment. But by their thoughtless abuse of that environment, they had destroyed the quality of their own lives. Most people now lived a life of monotonous toil, often made worse by tyrannical oppression and punctuated by destructive wars.

But although most people's lives were difficult, a minority were able to develop specialised skills and achieve independence and fulfilment as priests, scribes, craftsmen and traders, making themselves useful to their neighbours rather than enslaving them. In spite of everything, agriculture was the way forward: it meant a much more assured food surplus and permanent human settlements; it led everywhere, quite rapidly, to cities, literacy and civilization.


Language and Social Organization (Previous section)


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