Key terms, categories and explanations from Ember’s Cultural Anthropology. The biggest omissions in this abridgment are the illustrative examples.
Anatomically modern humans showed up to the party rather late—perhaps as late as only 130,000 years ago. This was right also right around the time Homo sapiens become cognitively modern and capable of symbolic thought. But looking good and thinking symbolically do not a good party make. Everyone would have been leaning against the wall and stealing furtive glances at each other for many millennia until they worked up the courage to finally invent language and talk to each other around 50,000 years ago.
So, regardless of what you use as your benchmark for modernity—anatomic, cognitive, or linguistic, the advent of food production in around 8,000 B.C.E. is relatively recent. That means, for most of human history, we’ve been foragers. “Foragers” are often called “hunter-gatherers” but this name is somewhat misleading. Hunting and gathering each typically contribute about 25-35% of caloric intake while fishing constituted the remaining 30-50%.
There is ongoing debate about just how sweet the pre-historic foraging life was. On one hand, per capita GDP between $90 and $200 for essentially forever doesn’t sound so hot (DeLong 1998) from the perspective of modernity. On the other hand, as we mentioned in a previous post, even modern foragers (who are typically thought to live in more marginal territory than early foragers) work fairly little. For example, the !Kung spend only about 42 hours on foraging, housework and tool-making all together. On the third hand, John “You’ve to break a few billion eggs to make an omelet” Zerzan is on the primitivist side so no thank you.
Like we said, the earliest food production arose in around 8,000 B.C.E. in the Near East.
Food production perhaps arose because it was the only way to support increased population. At some point, new bands of humans simply ran out of unoccupied territory to move into. Thereafter, population density would have increased beyond what foraging could support and horticulture, more productive per unit area than foraging, would have been the only option. This commonsensical theory of the rise of food production is called the Binford-Flannery model.
An alternative theory is that climate change reduced the availability of wild food supplies.
Regardless of the origin story, there are three major categories of food production:
- “Plant cultivation carried out with relatively simple tools and methods”. Probably the earliest form of food production. Shifting cultivation, in which land is worked temporarily and then abandoned while soil nutrients naturally replenish, is a common form. 60 of 186 SCSS cultures are horticultural (variable 246) (Murdock and White 1969).
- Intensive agriculture
- “Food production characterized by the permanent cultivation of fields and made possible by the use of the plow, draft animals or machines, fertilizers, irrigation, water-storage techniques, and other complex agricultural techniques.” 57 of 186 SCSS cultures are intensively agricultural (variable 246) (Murdock and White 1969).
- “A form of subsistence technology in which food-getting is based directly or indirectly on the maintenance of domesticated animals.” 16 of 186 cultures SCSS are pastoral (variable 246) (Murdock and White 1969).